Every few months it seems like you guys hit a threshold and need to tell me, all at once, that negative movie reviews bum you out. But if you think you’re bummed out, try it from my side. By the end of the year, I will have reviewed upwards of 150 movies; most here, but a few on my own site, too (like Steve Jobs, which I actually like). When you add in movies that I’ve seen that either won’t be released until next year or I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to write about, it’s closer to 200, and maybe 5% of them are genuinely good, with another 10% being okay enough. If it seems like all my reviews are negative, it’s because most movies I see are bad. If it was easy to make a good movie, there would be more good movies.
Sarah Silverman’s I Smile Back, unfortunately, is one of the not-good ones. It’s not a total loss, but it’s uneven and the movie as a whole doesn’t stand up to Silverman’s performance as Laney. Adapted from Amy Koppelman’s novel by Koppelman herself and Paige Dylan, and directed by Adam Salky (Dare), I Smile Back centers on Laney, a suburban housewife on the cusp of forty and falling apart at the seams. Laney isn’t just dealing with the ennui of a yuppie, gilded-cage existence, she has legitimate depression and addiction issues, and it’s systematically destroying her life.
Silverman isn’t quite a revelation here—anyone familiar with her utterly committed comic stage persona or her previous work as a recovering addict in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz has seen shades of this performance before—but she is nonetheless incredibly impressive, giving a wholly committed and unglamorous performance as Laney. If it weren’t for Silverman, Smile would be a hopeless case, but she doesn’t just elevate this film, she picks it up and carries the whole malfunctioning thing and almost makes it worthwhile despite its intrinsic problems.
Unfortunately, she can’t quite overcome a piecemeal script and lack of narrative focus. When we meet Laney she’s already mid-downward spiral, and in act one we see her so far out of it and lost to her depression that we see her in a shocking, disturbing moment of self-gratification, but it’s also so far down the bottom of the barrel that where else does Laney have to go? A brief recovery period is followed by inevitable relapse, but nothing, not even an act of violence, feels as visceral or damaging as that scene. It makes the movie feel unbalanced, like we see the film out of order—the scene in question would have made for a much better ending than the one actually in the film.
I feel like an asshole saying it, because undoubtedly the real-life struggle with addiction is not as neat and tidy as a movie script, but Smile is supposed to be a story, and that means structure. But there’s no structure here, there’s just Silverman spinning her wheels, trying to connect Laney’s struggles to an empty shell of a script that surrounds her with characters so undeveloped they might as well be played by cardboard cutouts. Her children are generic moppets—even an attempt to link her son’s burgeoning anxiety issues to her own depression goes nowhere—and her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), is little more than a plot device that exists to drive Laney to rehab. The lack of structure and character makes Smile feel empty, despite Silverman’s layered performance.
It’s not that it needs a happy ending—it doesn’t. But I Smile Back doesn’t even HAVE an ending, it literally just stops. The goal may be to show that for addicts, there is no “finishing” with their addiction, but the film mistakes “finished” with “resolved”. Laney will never finish battling her demons, but this script could have resolved the narrative contained within it. But then, that’s the larger problem—there is no narrative. There is only a collection of scenes with the underlying thread of Laney’s self-destructiveness, and no successful merging of that with a larger story.
Lacking a real story, director Salky couldn’t actually resolve anything, and so had to just stop his film mid-scene, because otherwise it would just continue on in this cycle ad infinitum. And I get that that’s the reality for addicts, but film is not reality. Film is a storytelling medium, and while a story doesn’t necessarily have to have a three act structure, it does need a beginning, a middle, and an end. I Smile Back is all middle.
I Smile Back is currently in theaters and available to rent on Amazon Instant. (Lainey: I saw this film at TIFF. And I totally agree with Sarah’s review. But if you’re unfamiliar with Silverman’s dramatic talent, this is a major showcase.)
Attached: Sarah Silverman at the 'Indie Contenders Roundtable presented by The Hollywood Reporter' during AFI FEST 2015 last week.