Directed by: Adam Salky.
Written by: Paige Dylan based on the novel by Amy Koppelman.
Starring: Sarah Silverman (Laney Brooks), Josh Charles (Bruce Brooks), Thomas Sadoski (Donny), Skylar Gaertner (Eli Brooks), Shayne Coleman (Janey Brooks), Terry Kinney (Dr. Page), Chris Sarandon (Roger).
The “housewife is depressed and goes crazy” film is practically a genre unto itself at this point – and stretches back decades in the movies at least. In old school Hollywood terms, they we usually melodramas, which allowed great actresses a chance to wildly over the top for their descent into madness – although by the end, things were usually alright again, and they had recovered from their tailspin. The new film I Smile Back doesn’t really add much different to the genre – once again, it is a movie about a woman who seemingly has it all – a nice husband, who works a good job, a nice house in the suburbs, two adorable kids she adores – and yet Laney Brooks is miserable. She does drugs, she sleeps around with men who don’t respect her (the last thing she wants is respect) and basically tries (and succeeds) to push everyone around her away. As with many of these movies, a long lost parent re-enters their life, which provides some answers (or at least clues to answers). Other than the rather graphic (and purposefully degrading) sex scenes in I Smile Back, this could well have been a movie made in old school Hollywood. That is, except for one thing – and that’s Sarah Silverman’s performance as Laney.
As mentioned above, these types of movies often give great actress a chance to emote – to play to the back row, with wild, loud gestures to signal how far gone they are. What Silverman, who has been very public with her own struggles with depression, does quite differently in I Smile Back is make Laney very quiet and still – flat and emotionless in many way. She is spiraling downwards to be sure, but she’s really slowly, quietly imploding. She cannot feel anything – which is why she does the drugs, and has the degrading sex – it’s an attempt to feel something, anything other than a flat nothing. This is much more believable than the typical way it has been done in the past – with those crazy performances, because it’s hard to believe anyone who acted that crazy would be allowed to continue in society. But with Laney, you know why – no one really notices just how gone she is. Silverman has delivered a few dramatic performances before – like as Michelle Williams’ friend in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz – but she’s never had to carry one like this before, and she pulls it off wonderfully.
The rest of the movie is nowhere near as good as Silverman. As I said, in many ways this movie could have come out of Hollywood decades ago – there’s a sympathetic doctor (Terry Kinney) who helps her, her husband (Josh Charles) who tries hard with her, but eventually gets exasperated, there’s the so-called friend who really uses her (Thomas Sadoski), the long lost father (Chris Sarandon) who offers some answers, and of course the scene where Laney masturbates using a teddy bear (okay, that last one is new). We’ve seen these scenes and characters before, and I Smile Back doesn’t really do anything new, or all that enlightening with them.
Yet, Silverman’s performance is good enough that the movie is worth seeing – and the fact that the movie doesn’t cop out at the end, and actually follows the story to its logical conclusion (even if it takes a few illogical detours on the way) is to its credit. I Smile Back is not a great movie – but it contains an excellent performance – a portrait of depression that stands out amongst the clichés that surround it.