A cruel character portrait that provides no meaningful insight as consolation.
I Smile Back
It’s no fault of Sarah Silverman‘s that her latest movie, I Smile Back, is so thematically, narratively and artistically clueless. The movie’s about her character, housewife and mother Laney Brooks, battling chronic depression, though, upon further reflection, the film is better described as a chronic depression simulator, a bridge-to-nowhere of a story that subjects us to grotesque acts of domestic horror without providing any worthwhile insight into its subject’s tragic condition as consolation. Silverman’s great—this may be the best she’s ever been on the big screen—but the truth remains that this is borderline sadistic cinema that lacks empathy and will ruin your day, if not your entire week.
Director Adam Salky and writers Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan (who adapted Koppelman’s own novel) put Silverman in an incredibly precarious position, asking her to lay it all on the line as an actor on every level. Valiantly, she holds up her end of the bargain, committing herself to every disturbing scenario thrown her way. Silverman’s the real deal—comedy may be her forte according to current public opinion, but as she hinted at in Sarah Polley‘s Take This Waltz, she can win audiences over as a dramatic lead just as well as she can as a stretchy-faced tomboy comedienne.
The big letdown here is that there isn’t enough dimension to Laney or her story, which means all the horrible things we watch her go through—sex addiction, drug and alcohol dependence, a self-destructive case of habitual lying—are in service of no larger meaning. In short, there doesn’t seem to be a point to all the torment.
The narrative is skeletal, essentially charting Laney’s downward spiral as her demons overtake her being and consequently push her family away. Her life falls apart in slow motion as she cheats on her husband (Josh Charles, a great onscreen partner) multiple times and emotionally traumatizes their two young children via random, unspeakable acts. Chronic depression is ugly, serious business that can lead to far worse things than what we see here, but the filmmakers are needlessly cruel to Laney in that they don’t give her the benefit of a complex personality; other than her bout with depression, the only thing that defines her is that she’s an upper-middle class soccer-mom cliché.
If you adjust the lens a bit and look at I Smile Back from a moment to moment perspective, it actually works on a few levels. The actors are pretty great across the board (even the kids) and Silverman and Charles are immediately convincing as a couple. Eric Lin’s cinematography is evocative and sumptuous and Tamara Meem’s editing fits the material well, reflecting Laney’s clouded mental state with disorienting skips back and forth in time. What’s frustrating is that there’s good stuff in there; with a greater sense of cohesion and a bit more narrative context, the movie might have been decent. It’s like opening up a puzzle set only to find a third of the pieces missing.
The story purposefully holds back all but a few bite-sized details about Laney’s sordid past (parental abandonment is a prime factor), but it’s hard to guess what the filmmakers’ intent was. Surely we’d empathize and identify with her more if we could understand more clearly the path that led her to such a self-destructive place. It’s just too hard to invest in Laney’s journey, which is a shame considering how much Silverman’s busting her ass. The ending feels…arbitrary. To be honest, you could cut the story off at any point of the movie’s gauntlet of crash-and-burns and the film’s emotional impact would be the same: negligible.