It never surprises me when comedians can turn out a great, dramatic turn. Performances such as Jim Carrey’s in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind or any drama Robin Williams ever did. When people comment that they’re surprised that comedians can do drama, it proves they don’t understand that it’s harder to make someone laugh than to make someone cry. Try and think of all of the dramatic performers they’ve seen successfully do a strict comedy.
Now it’s Sarah Silverman’s turn to try her hand at drama (although she’s already succeed in this in Take this Waltz) in Adam Salky’s I Smile Back. The film centers on Laney (Silverman) a wife and mother who’s addiction begins to spiral out of control and is faced with the possibility of loosing her family.
Cutting straight to the point: I didn’t like this movie. The script is a mess, the characters thinly drawn and unlikable, and it’s shot with no urgency that makes me want to care about the characters in the slightest. There is one moment at the start of the film, as Laney scrutinizes her appearance in the mirror, pulling at her body to try and fit a certain definition of beauty that defies all odds (critically, age), that resonated, offering a look at the internal battle of the character, but that’s the only moment of true introspection we get.
Laney is a whirlwind of a character, because as easy as it is to sympathize with her plights and her addiction, it’s also easy to find her at fault, to be as fed up with her antics as her husband is. The only saving grace to her character is Silverman’s performance which instills an insecurity into the character that allows us to see past the shallow nature of her character’s motives and see the inner heartache and the emptiness in her eyes. The writing on the other hand is a complete disservice to the character and by the end of the film Laney is written more as a villain to the story than an active participant who’s addictions are debilitating. Paige Dylan’s script lacks nuance, and Laney is written in a way that portrays her as selfish and irrational, which is fine, because when you’re an addict you are irrational, however, addiction is an illness, something that is never showcases well in this film.
There is nothing wrong with Laney being an unlikable character, but there is so much to the idea of drug addiction and what happens when that mixes with a mental illness that could be explored in a real, complex way that is completely overlooked in I Smile Back, which is more interested in the actions Laney performs and the messes she finds herself in than the reasons that led her there or the toll is takes on her psyche. Drug addiction is so often poorly represented in the media and what the film get’s half right is how Laney is able for the most part to go about her daily life with no one being suspicious to her actions until she ends up on the floor of her bedroom, totally incomprehensible. She’s a functioning addict. But it’s the bits of the film where Laney talks about going off her meds because they were making her fat, or her moments of talking about how life isn’t worth it and her husband, who knows she has a mental illness, isn’t concerned at all that struck me not just as odd but completely unfathomable.
Silverman is undeniably good, but is better when we see her in her decline, such as when she’s curled up on the floor of her daughters room, stifling her sobs. The film is such a clear showcase for Silverman that the rest of the cast is given very few moments to shine. Josh Charles is strong as her husband who can’t seem to wrap his head around what’s happening to his wife, but Thomas Sadoski as her lover is completely underutilized and that entire subplot dropped.
I Smile Back has all of the makings of an intense, emotional, drama but the execution is messy, and by the end didn’t seem to have a clear story that it was trying tell, and rather was simply interested in a seeing a woman who’s life seemed picture perfect to the outside world slowly unravel.
It did that at least.