Happy St. Patrick’s Day weekend. You are not Irish. That does not matter. You’re going to get drunk anyway.
Movies have often focused on drinking, whether celebrating getting sloshed or lamenting characters who don’t know when to say when. There are plenty of famous examples of each, but I wanted to shine a light on a small indie film that didn’t get a ton of attention and is worthy of rediscovery.
By 2012, Aaron Paul was an Emmy-winning actor on Breaking Bad, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead was an up-and-coming indie actress who had been in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. They teamed up for Smashed, which was directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, who would later go on to great acclaim with The Spectacular Now. Smashed is an intimate, modest story, but it expertly details how alcoholism slowly tears apart a happy couple.
In the film, Winstead plays Kate, a school teacher with a drinking problem. So does her husband Charlie (Paul), but because they have such a fun time together getting blasted they don’t really consider it much of a problem. That changes one night, though, when Kate goes on a serious bender that includes her smoking crack and waking up without a clear memory of everything that happened the night before. Determined to get sober, she goes to AA, but her husband refuses to take part.
Smashed has a pretty stellar ensemble, including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Octavia Spencer, and it’s wise about how hard recovery can be. That process is even more challenging when you’re trying to kick an addiction, and the man you love wants to keep dragging you back down into the vortex of your alcoholism. Winstead and Paul avoid actors-playing-drunks clichés as their characters slowly drift apart. Alcohol brought them together, but her sobriety may force them to separate. What’s so poignant about Smashed is its argument that, ultimately, Kate has to choose between her soulmate and her recovery.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best movies about drinking. Bottoms up.
This likely comes as a shock to no one, but my favorite movie about drinking is Coyote Ugly.
It’s not just the feminist philosophy of the original iconic bar in Manhattan, which comes through so clearly in the film that it gives me all the feels, it’s that Coyote Ugly highlights the ways that bars are much more than places to have drinks — they’re places to forge an identity and be a part of a community.
That, and let’s be real: It’s just a lot of fun to look at.
Written by Gina Wendkos and directed by David McNally, the 2000 film stars Piper Perabo as Violet Sanford, the classic small-town ingenue who moves to the Big City to pursue her music career. When, typical to Hollywood tropes, and uh, twentysomething lives everywhere, Violet doesn’t magically become rich and famous overnight, she turns to where so many creatives — particularly women working in the arts — have made a living while they hustle to make their dreams come true: the service industry.
There, she joins a cadre of confident, self-possessed and wildly smart and attractive women (Tyra Banks, Bridget Moynahan, Izabella Miko and Melanie Lynskey) and finds not just a job, but a piece of herself, too.
Full disclosure: I’ve been Violet Sanford. When I walked into a bar in 2010 and walked away with a job behind the stick, I had no idea what I was doing. I was awkward. I was shy. I was sure I was only in it for the money. But like Violet, all of that changed with the help of the badass women I worked with and the incredible energy and camaraderie within the places and spaces we call bars.
Because #Hollywood, Violet’s story wouldn’t be complete without a love interest, and so Coyote Ugly also stars Adam Garcia as Kevin, the distressingly attractive guest-turned-loverboy.
In the end, Violet gets the guy — and the career — but you know she gave her heart away to Coyote Ugly well before Kevin was ever on screen. — Haley Hamilton, Booze Correspondent
Withnail & I
I often think of this as a weed film, due to both the infamous Camberwell Carrot, and it being one of my favorite stoned watches back in the day. But a drinking film it is — so much so that it has its own drinking game (one that, if you complete it, would see you consuming a monstrous nine and a half glasses of red wine; half a pint of hard cider; one shot of overproof rum (in place of the lighter-fluid Withnail drinks, for obvious reasons); two and a half measures of gin; six glasses of sherry; 13 drams of Scotch whisky and half a pint of ale, all in under two hours).
But while booze is a key component of every scene, the film is about a lot more than drunken shenanigans. Despite the endlessly quotable script — one that throws out more memorable one-liners in a minute than most movies manage in their entire runtime — it’s still an intensely melancholic film, an elegy for the simple fact that nothing lasts forever, be it Withnail and Marwood’s (aka, “I”) untenable friendship, or the very era in which the film is set. As Ralph Brown’s frazzled drug dealer Danny so eloquently laments, “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”
The film made Richard E. Grant a star due to his perfect comedic drunk turn (although, weirdly enough, Grant had only ever been drunk once in his life before playing the perma-sloshed Withnail, and that at the insistence of the film’s writer and director, Bruce Robinson). But it’s Grant’s devastating rendition of Hamlet’s “What piece of work is a man” monologue that nailed him in the hearts of so many.
As mournful as this ending is, it’s still not as bleak — or nearly as overblown — as the ending of Robinson’s unpublished novel, from which he adapted the screenplay: Originally, Withnail fills the barrel of Uncle Monty’s gun with wine and pulls the trigger as he drinks from it. Quite apart from the fact that absolutely nobody wants to see Richard E. Grant do this on screen, this also makes it an unavoidably permanent ending, and it’s the uncertain future we’re left with that makes it such a perfect drunk film: Riotous fun, followed by a profound and affecting hangover of sadness, and the inevitability of doing it all over again.
All of which is to say I’m happy to let this movie continue to fuck me up. Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither. But Withnail and I will bring me joy forever. — Nick Leftley, Senior Editor
I don’t have a ton of love for Charles Bukowski, whose sense of squalor and casual sexism tend to overwhelm a decent comic talent. But Factotum, an adaption of his 1975 novel that lands his alcoholic alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, in the malaise of 2005, magically resolves almost every complaint one might have about the source material.
Whereas Bukowski’s style veered toward clownish excess, director Bent Hamer brings a Norwegian chill to Chinaski’s aimless, boozy obscurity, coming up with a film that exemplifies dry wit, anchored by a sardonic Matt Dillon, who seems to accept his hard-luck fate as the price of never giving a shit. Restraint and timing mean the one-liners are unforgettable: “Kid, I’ve probably slept longer than you’ve lived,” one old barfly tells Chinaski.
Dillon’s unstable chemistry with his equally drunk romantic interests, played by Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei, give us a tragic dimension, though it’s the secret fraternity of liquor that grounds Factotum’s episodes in a hard reality. Fired from yet another menial job on his first day, Chinaski nonetheless demands payment for the hours he worked, telling his white-collar boss that he just wants the money to go to a bar. At this, the seemingly implacable manager relents and hands over some cash; as soon as Chinaski departs his office, he pulls a flask out of the desk. There can be no finer image of addiction’s failure to discriminate — the victims are everywhere you look. — Miles Klee, Staff Writer
So yeah, lemme start with the obvious: I’ve never come to after a bender to find a tiger in my bathroom or Mike Tyson’s infamous face tattoo framing one of my eye sockets. But shit, if The Hangover isn’t more real than not. Like, shake you to your core real — evocatively speaking at least. And so, what it evokes, cutting to a drinker’s absolute essence, is the haziness of a drunken night’s epicness that’s tough to explain otherwise. Hence, all the hyperbole: It’s impossible to capture any other way. Plus, it might have been that epic anyway. You just can’t fucking remember. But I swear to God, it felt like it was that wild — and the incredible headache that’s crippling thoughts of any kind would seem to second. Now if only I could forget the two sequels. — Josh Schollmeyer, Co-founder / Editor-in-Chief