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A gutsy performance by Sarah Silverman — annihilating almost every trace of her comedy persona as her character spirals through one punishing bout of depression, addiction and self-sabotage after another, multiple times redefining rock-bottom — is the chief distinction of Adam Salky‘s I Smile Back. Despite a number of trenchant scenes and some startling depictions of sexual degradation, the film has little that’s particularly original or enlightening to say about living with a chemical, genetic or emotional imbalance, making its primary function as a showcase for the lead actress to stretch her range.
Coming so soon after Jennifer Aniston put herself through the wringer in Cake, this well-made but predictable drama risks being labeled as downer overkill.
It certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of lasting reprieve, and it veers into sentimentality with some on-the-nose dialogue from the central character’s kids, fretting about losing Mommy or her love even before they find her sprawled across the bathroom tiles. Subtlety is definitely not a factor when her son Eli (Skylar Gaertner), who may also have drawn the hereditary behavioral-disorder short straw, plays Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at a piano recital while his hopeful but hopeless mother’s eyeliner turns to ink.
Adapted from Amy Koppelman‘s novel by the author and Paige Dylan, the film presents Laney (Silverman) as a well-heeled New Jersey housewife married to smugly successful insurance guru Bruce (Josh Charles), and doing her best to be a loving mother to their sweet kids Eli and Jane (Shayne Coleman).
She packs them lunches every morning in the family’s giant McMansion and ferries them to school in a shiny black SUV. But it’s getting harder to sustain that routine while subsisting on vodka, coke and pills, and yo-yoing between rage and despair. Just to add some extra fuel to her self-loathing, she’s getting a regular pounding on the side from married family friend Donny (Thomas Sadoski), a restaurateur who’s happy to take sexual advantage of Laney’s instability.
Some of the most compelling scenes come early on, when Laney chafes against school staff officiously enforcing new security measures that require parent IDs. But more squalid detours, like getting down and dirty on the floor with little Jane’s teddy bear while her daughter lies sleeping right next to her prompt unintended titters.
The filmmakers keep the roots of Laney’s malaise inexplicit, only scraping the surface in sessions with a shrink (Terry Kinney) during her first stint in rehab. There are abandonment issues stretching back to her father’s exit when she was nine, thereafter remaining incommunicado. And there’s an encroaching fear that loving anybody, her children most of all, means living with the crippling fear of losing them. In more subtle ways, it’s suggested that the privileged complacency of her upper-middle-class environment eats away at her sense of herself.
Some of Silverman’s sharpest moments come when she allows a brief glimpse of her acerbic comic instincts, such as a dinner party scene in which she mortifies Bruce by making mockery of a potential client’s young trophy wife. But the movie is mostly so busy rebranding its accomplished lead as a Serious Actress (the word “brave” no doubt will be thrown about a lot) that it reduces her to dull edges and unrelenting misery. It also largely squanders a supporting cast capable of much better work, notably Charles, who makes little impression until Bruce’s patience with Laney’s derailment runs out.
There’s a strong scene late in the action where Laney during an upstate New York trip pays an unannounced visit to her estranged father, played with an incisive mix of defensiveness, regret and atonement by Chris Sarandon. But more often the scripting is either pedestrian or downright cheesy, as in a happy moment when Laney has Bruce retell the story of how they met, like some kind of meet-cute third-person urban fairytale that’s strictly for the audience’s benefit. This has got to be one of the clunkiest back-story devices in the book.
There’s no questioning Silverman’s commitment to this harrowing role, but there are also too few reasons to invest emotionally in her character, as much as Laney obviously wants to be there for her children. Not to trivialize the brutal experience of anyone in the grip of chronic depression, but the film becomes a thankless and repetitive exercise in emotional pornography. Each time Laney resumes popping her lithium and playing nice, we know another inevitable plummet into the depths of raw hurt and darkness is bound to follow. Ultimately, it’s less wrenching than numbing.
Production companies: Koppelman/Levien, in association with Oscar Crosby Productions, Film House Germany
Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Oona Laurence
Director: Adam Salky
Screenwriters: Amy Koppelman, Paige Dylan, based on Koppelman’s novel
Producers: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Mike Harrop, Richard Arlook
Executive producers: Skip Klintworth, Jens Meurer, Christian Angermayer
Director of photography: Eric Lin
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Costume designer: Cathryn Hunt
Music: Zack Ryan
Editor: Tamara Meem
Casting: Avy Kaufman
No rating, 85 minutes.
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