I Smile Back, 2015.
Directed by Adam Salky.
Starring Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, and Thomas Sadoski.
Laney Brooks does bad things. Married with kids, she takes the drugs she wants, sleeps with the men she wants, disappears when she wants. Now, with the destruction of her family looming, and temptation everywhere, Laney makes one last desperate attempt at redemption.
In her mid-40s, Sarah Silverman seems to be entering a new phase of her comedy/acting career, which is head-on tackling some very challenging dramatic roles. She’s also succeeding in this endeavor, slowly revealing new layers of talent, mostly due to the fact of how fearless she is handling extremely taboo subject material. It’s just a shame that such a breakthrough starring role is coming in a movie where everything orbiting her performance is lackluster in quality, not interesting enough, or so awkwardly fast-paced that there is no opportunity to truly understand the mind and complexities of her character Laney, a well-meaning loving mother unfortunately suffering from depression, choosing to replace her lithium medication with alcohol, drugs, and sex.
I Smile Back begins with a sort of montage of scenes depicting her cheating on her husband (Josh Charles), snorting cocaine, attempting to admire her nude body in the mirror, arguing with her husband over keeping a dog for their children, and some shots of her in distress juxtaposed with her husband playing basketball at night with the kids. It’s an opening that leads you into believing that you’re ready to witness what is basically a derailment of human life, which is what happens, yet the movie frustratingly fails to explore the reasoning behind any of these actions beyond brief passing moments.
Once Laney’s husband Bruce discovers this erratic and unstable mental behavior, he has her sent away to a rehab facility, where there are some exchanges with a psychiatrist about fatherly abandonment issues, but they ultimately go nowhere. What should be a series of engrossing scenes that pick away at Laney’s psyche to reach the root of the problem, while also plainly allowing viewers to empathize with her troublesome decisions, quickly becomes a two-minute scene spouting off exposition without weight. Even more baffling, within a few scenes she’s on her way back home apparently cured.
One can’t help but wonder if some depth got lost in translation when adapting Amy Koppelman’s novel of the same name to the big screen. Most of I Smile Back just feels like a series of subplots just there, all connected to Laney’s personal vices.
It’s alright though, maybe back around her family I Smile Back will attempt to delve into why Laney felt the need to act out so self-destructively, or why she enjoys cheating on her husband, or even what brought her to alcohol and drug addiction in the first place. However, it simply doesn’t, and you’re left wondering what the point of all this is. Human nature tells us we should, and want to, empathize with anyone struggling with depression, but this movie avoids giving you an understanding at every corner.
So what we’re left with is a string of scenes consisting of Sarah Silverman continuously destroying her life, committing sordid sexual acts, and essentially being driven to the brink of suicide. Outside of telling us she’s depressed, we’ll never know why, but thankfully Silverman is absolutely riveting to watch, especially during some all-out rock bottom moments towards the end. I Smile Back contains quite a number of dark scenes that the comedic actress handles like a true pro (many of them sexual in nature) and also more restrained heartbreaking scenes of her painfully holding back tears from bursting out.
What matters most is that audiences will care despite the numerous narrative gripes; her distressed facial mannerisms are superbly on-point. The one other important aspect the film handles well is not to pass judgment onto the character, which is up to the viewer to decide if she’s a horrible person or deserving of empathy and second chances.
She also shares quite a few scenes with Josh Charles that are either sad or explosive. There’s a conversation regarding Laney not wanting the children to have a dog because it will eventually die, which quickly shifts into a discussion about the point in loving anything. Furthermore, I Smile Back needed more dialogue exchanges like this for viewers to better grasp her distorted personality.
Bottom line though is that Sarah Silverman’s performance is captivating; an intimate portrait of a woman deeply concerned with actually being a good wife and parent that ultimately succumbs to her demons. I Smile Back isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a disjointed one with weird pacing that properly doesn’t get inside the head of its mentally tormented protagonist. In a just movie-making world, this (and the disappointingly overlooked Take This Waltz from 2012) are just the beginnings of an outstanding venture into raw, mature drama for Sarah Silverman.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook