I Smile Back is another one of those movies where a comedian is given a chance to shed all the baggage of their giggle-craving past to dig into the sadness behind the clown and reveal the dramatic performer within. Yet, before you start with the eye-rolling, it should be noted that this is thankfully a rather good example of that oft-troubling form. A big reason is of course the fact that the comedian in question is Sarah Silverman, an always fearless performer who often gave hints that she had untested acting chops waiting to break out. She’s done some devastatingly dark work here that should hopefully open a new career avenue for Silverman provided that the movie gets the attention it deserves.
Silverman stars as Laney, the suburban mother equivalent of the Bad Lieutenant. She has a big house, a loving husband (Josh Charles), two bubbly children, a sugar habit, a drug habit, a drinking problem, and a sex addiction. We see all of it play out in quick succession, with Laney transitioning from dropping her children off to school into a variety of binges, an afternoon tryst with a family friend, and an the end of the night a pretty damn disturbing bottoming out moment in her daughter’s bedroom. The events of the day lead to Laney hitting and finally seeking help, so her self-help author husband ships her off to rehab. The audience gets bits and pieces of the past that lead her to this point during the rehab stint, primarily in the form of some good old fashioned daddy abandonment issues. Eventually she gets out and tries to rebuild her life, but the nature and extent of Laney’s addictions are clearly a ticking time bomb, no matter how wide her smile.
Adapted from a popular novel by Paige Dylan and the original author Amy Koppelman, I Smile Back is fairly relentless in it’s study of suburban self-destruction. There are no easy lessons learned or inspiring montages to coddle viewers into thinking that everything will be ok. Nope, director Adam Salky’s film is at best too wise and at worst too limited for that. It’s a film that knows addition and recovery rarely run in a straight line even though that doesn’t fit a cozy three act structure. It’s deliberately tough stuff to experience, primarily because Salky’s roving handheld cameras keep viewers locked in on Laney and her story. Everyone else feels wanders in an out of the periphery. Undoubtedly that’s an accurate reflection on the specific brand of tragic narcissism and self-destruction that would lead anyone to the bottoming out points depicted on screen. However, it does mean that despite some nice work from Lucas and other performers, the only character the audience truly gets to know is Laney and to an extent even she remains a mystery even to herself.
Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses in the movie surrounding her, there’s not denying that Silverman is absolutely remarkable here. The film was apparently developed with her in mind and while it’s completely unlike anything the comedian has made before, she absolutely nails the role. There are flickers of the acidic wit that Silverman is known for during a few sequences of passive aggression, but for the most part her character has no humorous outlet. She’s damaged and perpetually seeking her own ways to embrace that damage, yet Silverman seems to find some deep empathy for the character even if audiences might not share it. She finds flickers of inner struggle within blank stares and even sequences of seeming happiness feel like a momentary mask covering deep troubles. It’s a pretty fearless performance that holds nothing back and lets everything hang out. Given how often Silverman’s skill as an actress has been wasted in any project she didn’t write herself, it’s a delight to see her given such a challenging role. Let’s hope it’s not the last time.
Ultimately, Silverman’s performance is the movie. Salky and co. do their best to stand back from the actress and let her dictate everything that unfolds around her. It’s not a movie that coddles the audience with easy answers or offers much hope for redemption. To an extent, there’s a wiff of misery porn to the proceedings and it will put many viewers off who are predisposed to dislike that sort of thing. However, those who enjoy (well, as much as ‘enjoyment’ is possible) spending time with a empathetically self-destructive trainwreck onscreen, the movie is certainly worth checking out for Silverman’s performance alone. Hopefully it won’t be the last time the comedienne is allowed to dig deep as an actress, but perhaps she should do something a little lighter next. After carrying the burden of this role/movie, Silverman certainly deserves a little break.
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