It’s a Hollywood cliche when comic actors decide on roles that scream “DRAMATIC,” which can be code for playing addicts or spiralling screw-ups. I Smile Back is no different, but it’s anchored by a towering performance from Sarah Silverman.
It’s not exactly an overwhelming surprise that Silverman sinks her teeth into such bleak material, because her standup comedy and recent work in Take This Waltz and Masters of Sex have been punctuated by darkness and signalled her willingness to take on the challenge. Here, Silverman plays Laney, an attentive mother to her son Eli and Janey, and a perfect wife to Bruce (Josh Charles), but she’s also a raging addict with a wide range of substances (alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, and pills).
Director Adam Salky deploys a linear narrative to great effect when we see Laney in mid-spiral, as she whiles away the hours when her kids are at school by having afternoon sex with a close friend, snorting coke, and drinking endless glasses of wine. It gets slightly repetitive, but it serves to highlight Laney’s swinging moods that showcase a deep anger buried underneath. Silverman nails that suburban malaise with her twitchy and vacant expressions when she’s performing as the happy mother and wife to her children and husband, but it’s those minute physical moments that signify the shift from her angry stares to her flirty gait when she gets drunk.
Since this is an addiction drama, we know the plot points from a mile away, from the horrifying moment that sends her to rehab, to the eventual working through her trauma. Thankfully, Salky lets Silverman’s innate humour shine through in some moments to break the tension; “Do you want to hear about the daddy issues or the drugs?” she asks her therapist at rehab. It’s these incidents that make you root for Laney to get her life together, but that’s almost too easy for such a self-destructive character. Screenwriter Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman, who wrote the book on which the film is based, elevate these familiar moments with their insightful understanding of the characters.
When Laney hits rock bottom after visiting her estranged father (Chris Sarandon), you can’t help but ask the obvious question: why didn’t she seek help earlier? Or why doesn’t she get a job? These are valid questions that the script doesn’t bother answering, since Silverman creates such a helplessly destructive character that you can see why she’s incapable of it. They also don’t address why Bruce, the long-suffering husband, is content on eliding her problems with his self-help profundities, but Charles does his best with the underwritten role.
I Smile Back is a tough drama that’s certainly worth watching for Sarah Silverman’s stunning portrait of self-destruction and despair, which mostly eclipses any of the story problems that become obvious towards the finale. It’s definitely worthy of award season attention.