“Then why bother loving anything?”
I’ve never been a huge fan of Sarah Silverman as an actress. As a comedian, though, she’s great. It’s the same thing with Chris Rock: the dude kills it on stage, but on a movie set there’s definitely something lacking. To me it just goes to show what many people have said for decades about comedy being harder to theatrically than drama. Naturalistic timing isn’t easy and when you’re used to constructing a joke it can be impossible to change gears. Stand-up is half about the performer leading us along with exaggerated expressions, actions, and cadence while life is the exact opposite. But Rock showed with the right role he can excel (Top Five). And Silverman proved in Take This Waltz she could follow suit.
Well the verdict is officially in with Adam Salky‘s I Smile Back because she’s phenomenal as a depressive substance-abusing mother of two. Based on the novel by Amy Koppelman—adapted by her and Paige Dylan—this story’s about the demons the mentally ill carry as well as the struggles loved ones face. The title reads into the façade of fabrication put on to disguise what’s really going on: a smile born from others smiling, created in response to a social cue rather than an authentic emotion. We see this through a slowly shifting montage of Silverman’s Laney Brooks lost in a fog. Woken by her ready-to-go husband Bruce (Josh Charles) each morning she moves into bouts of anger, stashes of cocaine, and the carnal embrace of a friend.
The film’s a steady stream of personal implosions marked by the decision to stop taking medication but not defined by it. Most Hollywood fare concerning this subject matter use pills as a generic stop-all mixed with the love of a husband or child to pull its lead up from rock bottom and live happily ever after. We’ve seen the formula countless times. So it’s refreshing to witness Laney’s descent continue to go lower. She’s crying without energy after verbally sparring with another parent on the phone, crawling around her young daughter’s room (Shayne Coleman‘s Janey) to masturbate with a Teddy bear at her bedside halfway through the movie. She therefore goes to rehab and appears cured, but anyone who’s dealt with depression knows “cured” is temporary.
While the actions depicted are the absolute worst this situation can provide between adultery, drug use, rage, suicide attempts, remorse, guilt, and absolute indifference, they aren’t out-of-place. The plot can get a bit convenient once Laney’s estranged father (Chris Sarandon‘s Roger) enters for the cyclical mirroring of abandonment and lack of mental stability for parenthood, but even that proves a useful dramatic arc to help ruin her life even further. By escalating her extracurricular activities and refusing to let her stop for more than a few days, the filmmakers ensure we understand just how volatile this condition is. There’s no switch to be flipped. As the rehab therapist (Terry Kinney) explains: mistakes will be made. It’s about how she reacts to them that matters.
Let’s just say she runs through the spectrum of responses from calm to out-of-control. Her lack of self-worth and shame leads to lies or worse and the window to use Bruce as a steading force diminishes each day. This isn’t all her fault, though. She tries to admit some of the awful things she did when off her meds, but he deflects the subject by leveraging his kids into providing an escape from the room. He loves her—and she him—but at a certain point he needs to receive help as well in order to know how to react, listen, and be there beyond a constant reminder that things were better a long time ago. Getting back there is a process and more than likely unattainable.
No matter how good Silverman is—I mean that honestly too and not in the stereotypical “actress going nude for drama equals brave” way so many utilize—the story isn’t quite as solid. At only 85-minutes the sheer amount of events to continuously break her down renders it a never-ending slog with so little time spent for each misstep to breathe as more than a checklist towards destruction. The appearance of her father is ultimately shoe-horned in for dramatic relevance (why after thirty years does she choose now to see him other than because it serves the filmmakers’ goals) and the stuff with her son Eli (Skylar Gaertner) blinking in anxiety one more periphery trigger rather than subplot to pursue as affected by her condition.
I Smile Back becomes a character study from front to back—an exercise to showcase Silverman’s range. It will do well in advancing her career outside of clichéd funny roles and into a legitimate trajectory worth noting, so it’s not a loss by any means. I enjoyed Charles’ turn as her husband too, his honest compassion mixed with angry frustration when no longer able to simply roll with the punches as his children’s well-being factors into the equation. With real potential to provide a deeper look at mental illness and its rough journey, though, this adaptation sadly remains on the surface by spotlighting a dismantled Laney Brooks without investing enough in the why leading up to her present triggers. The drama’s sufficiently dark, but also quite shallow.
 (l to r) Josh Charles stars as ‘Bruce’ and Sarah Silverman as ‘Laney’ in Broad Green Pictures release, I SMILE BACK.
 (l to r) Sarah Silverman stars as ‘Laney’ and Chris Sarandon as ‘Roger’ in Broad Green Pictures release, I SMILE BACK.
 (l to r) Sarah Silverman stars as ‘Laney’, Shane Coleman as ‘Janey’, Josh Charles as ‘Bruce’ and Skylar Gaertner as ‘Eli’ in Broad Green Pictures release, I SMILE BACK.