Film Review: “I Smile Back”—Becoming Undone, Memorably

Sarah Silverman throws herself into depicting Laney’s mental illness and out-of-control life.

I Smile Back, directed by Adam Salky. Opens this Friday at Hollywood Hits in Danvers and on VOD.

Sara Silverman in "I Smile Back." Photo: Broad Green Pictures.

Sarah Silverman in “I Smile Back.” Photo: Broad Green Pictures.

By Tim Jackson

Sarah Silverman ventures into her dark side in the film adaptation of Amy Koppelman’s novel I Smile Back. Edgily making jokes about racism, the Holocaust, rape, and other controversial topics, her offhanded, ingenious delivery remains smart and sexy. The Janus face of her comic persona feeds her unrelenting portrait of Laney Brooks: a sad, unfulfilled, and desperately drug addicted upper-class suburban housewife. Laney is madly in love with her two small children, to the point that she holds them as close as life jackets when facing tidal waves of self-loathing and discontent. She can’t play by the rules and most social amenities fly out the window as she drowns herself in liquor and cocaine.

Silverman throws herself into depicting Laney’s mental illness and out-of-control life. Her husband (Josh Charles) cannot fathom her need to self-medicate, given that she is living such a cushy bourgeoisie life. And neither do we. It is far too easy to be skeptical about the only motive given for her radically rudderless life—she was abandoned by her father as a child. Still, it is grimly fascinating to watch Laney self-destruct, and perversely thrilling to see Silverman portray what it is like to become completely undone. With no clues (or complexity) about the cause of her decline, we’re left to helplessly witness (rather than understand) what comes off as a tour de force of bad behavior. Despite some stints in forced rehab, Silverman’s Laney elicits contempt rather than empathy.

2000’s Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky with Ellen Burstyn as Sarah Goldfarb, also depicted addiction horrifically. It was envisioned as a hallucinogenic horror show, an insanely stylized nightmare. Several of the addicts in Joshua and Ben Safdie’s recent psychodrama, Heaven Knows What, were real ex-junkies. That film’s rambling plotline generated some authentic grittiness. I Smile Back need not emulate those films, but the lack of psychological specificity results in a series of stagy and melodramatic situations fueled by some awkward dialogue. The film is a superb showcase for Silverman, but without the requisite depth of character, the narrative isn’t revelatory about why well-off people succumb to addiction.

That said, however, I Smile Back has stayed with me because it dramatizes how addiction behaviors strain friendships and destroy social relationships. One feels helpless in the face of extreme and destructive behavior, whether its caused by mental illness or a lack of self control. That’s what we are forced to confront in I Smile Back. Silverman’s performance leaves us hanging and helpless. Fans of the actress may sense that her risqué comedy is an expression of real and radical discontent. (They may know that she has admitted to suffering from deep depressions.) We want to know more about Laney’s inner life, but what we see is what we get. Frustrating as that is, director Adam Salky is obviously not interested in providing solutions or explanations. His intention was to leave audiences disconcerted—and he does.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts