I’ve always liked reading about drinking. Many of my favorite novelists–Kingsley Amis, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh–wring a great deal of comedy, and occasionally tragedy, out of humanity’s relations with the bottle. (I haven’t read as much about the grimmer side of things. I’ve never picked up The Lost Weekend, any of Patrick Hamilton’s novels, or the endless litany of memoirs on the subject.) One of my favorite movies is also largely concerned with booze: Withnail & I (the story of a pair of unemployed, hard-drinking, actors in London in the late 1960s).
I presumably have an appreciation for these tales because I like a drink or three myself. Bars and parties are a huge part of my social life, and I suspect that’s true of most people in their 20s and 30s (if not beyond). One of first wonderful experiences in West Philadelphia was in a local bar on Superbowl Sunday 2010, after the game: A snowstorm had buried the city on Saturday and another was approaching on Tuesday. No one had work. It felt like the entire neighborhood was there, young and old, black and white, immigrants, new arrivals, and life-long Philadelphians. We drank to excess, danced around the bar, and listened to Motown music until 2:00 I the morning, when the bartender turned the lights out on us. For months afterwards I would see middle-aged African-American ladies around the neighborhood, who would say hi to me and laugh about that night.
But as much fun as alcohol can be and for all its powers as a social lubricant and bane to boredom, it can clearly also be a huge problem. I’ve seen estimates that the health and societal damages caused by alcohol can be totaled at $223 billion a year (and that’s why we should, and do, tax it). On the individual level, there is a clearly a point where drinking is no longer just a fun time with your friends, or a way to unwind after work. There is a huge amount of dramatic potential in the fun/danger there and its been explored to great effect in numerous movies, including The Days of Wine and Roses, the cinematic version of The Lost Weekend, the aforementioned Withnail and I, and most recently in Smashed, a new movie released this past Friday. (Also, as Dylan Matthews reminds me, in this excellent Lizzy Caplan short film Successful Alcoholics.)
And that is the topic of my piece for Slate on Smashed, pop culture depictions of drinking, and how to tell when you are having too much.
“According to the CDC, everyone who drinks regularly and in a way that would make Julia Child proud is an at-risk drinker,” says Gabrielle Glaser, author of the forthcoming Her Best-Kept Secret, a book about drinking and American women. “I think we need to completely reframe our conversation: We need to have an open conversation about where fun is and where fun stops.”
Smashed is a movie about two people who have not considered this conversation. Kate and Charlie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul (he just won an Emmy for Breaking Bad), drink a lot, every day. They are about my age, their professions are familiar (she teaches, he writes), and their affection is evident. They seem to have been having a good time. But Kate, at least, has reached the point where “all the things that used to be funny aren’t really funny anymore and things have gone from embarrassing to scary.”
Esquire describes Smashed as a “hipster Days of Wine and Roses,” a hammy 1962 filmabout another white, middle-class, hard-drinking couple. But that’s not right. Days of Wine and Roses covers the arc of a relationship that is grim from the beginning. (Jack Lemmon downs a pint of bourbon, by himself, on their first date. That’s a warning sign, ladies.)Smashed has no equivalent of Lemmon thrashing around in a sanatorium, straightjacketed and screaming with delirium tremens. The depiction of his addiction is so hideous that even many hardened drinkers can easily distance themselves from it: I’d never wind up like that. The other, far more relatable, pole can be seen in films from The Thin Man—“Would you bring me five more Martinis?”—to Animal House, which depict the sociable, fun side of alcohol with few, if any, hints of its dangers. Who hasn’t gotten drunk and silly with their friends?
“That line between moderate drinking and problematic drinking is not something that is cut and dry; it evolves for people,” says historian Lori Rotskoff, author of Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America. “Carving out that middle ground is something that gets negotiated culturally, and film presents a really good opportunity [for measuring] these anxieties.”
Smashed does a better job than any film I’ve seen of addressing our culture’s schizophrenic relationship with drinking. It covers a year or so in the life of the couple (at a trim 85 minutes, it’s a little too short) and the increasing obviousness of their problem. Unlike Days of Wine and Roses—which can feel like a two-hour PSA with unusually fine acting—Smashed offers an understandable explanation for the couple’s dangerous drinking. The film gives fair play to booze: Kate and Charlie imbibe because they have a lot of fun while doing it. So they do it all the time. Lacking any control mechanisms, or dialogue about their habits, they seem to think they can live like Bluto. They are hazily unaware of the warning signs.