By Tom Platt. Imagine it’s your tenth birthday and your mom made this amazing looking cake and all your friends are there and you blow out the candles and you try to be funny and shovel a big piece in your mouth before your mom can cut it and you take a bite and realize it’s just cardboard with toothpaste on top. And you cry. Because everything is terrible and the jokes on you.
Now consider Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman), a married mother of two fighting an invisible yet relentless anxiety fed by her addictions. Intentionally switching from her prescribed lithium to a self-medicating regiment of cocaine and alcohol, Laney struggles to numb herself of the fear that she might love something too deeply.
We catch up with Laney as she careens around a particularly bad turn. After dropping off the kids at school, she spends her afternoon with her lover snorting drugs in an attempt to feel some rush of pleasure while the children are away. Laney’s daily ritual appears as thus: put the kids to bed, avoid intimacy with her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), sneak downstairs to self medicate. It’s not until she drags herself upstairs pleading for help that anybody notices that there’s a problem here.
I Smile Back is a difficult movie to appreciate. In spite of Laney’s early cry for help, none of the characters find the time to redeem themselves during the film’s remaining running time. Even Bruce is consistently absent during times of crisis. His concern with selling life insurance as a way of “hedging your bets with God” instead of recognizing that his wife is on a self destructive rampage removes any redeeming qualifications he garnered as a victim. This recurring, unsympathetic character structure leaves the movie feeling jumpy, and often times, contrived.
Glossing over whole weeks at a time, it becomes easy to lose perspective on Laney’s struggle. In a matter of minutes, she’s taken into rehab, connects with a doctor, takes up jogging, and vaguely discusses how her father left when she was young. Surviving the 30 day montage away from the family she was once borderline fanatical about, Laney returns home and everything seems fine. Perhaps the film bypasses any type of conflict because their love is just that deep (or, more likely, because dialogue is hard).
With two first time screenwriters, novelist Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan (as in Bob’s daughter-in-law), as well as second time director Adam Salky, I Smile Back was fighting an uphill battle from the start. It’s only because of the surprisingly affecting performance by Sarah Silverman that this movie has any right to a theatrical release. In all honesty, Silverman offers such a raw commitment to her role that you may forget the rest of the film sorely lacks any considerable depth.
In the end, rehab is offered as little more than a place to explain away all of Laney’s self destructive behaviors. Both Laney and her doctor feel as if they’ve made real progress, despite having merely rooted every emotional problem concerning her palpable abandonment issues. The writers hammer this home by making her father the only catalyst toward Laney’s destruction, leaving the audience to believe that if she’d simply let him go she would be completely fine. This attempt to explain away Laney’s previously complex struggle with a blanket reason cheapens everything Silverman has fought so hard to drag out of this poorly written character. It’s a feeble attempt to create a tangible conflict in all of the wrong ways.
The way film can present mental disorders in a powerful way is through the reactions of those affected by it. Answers are intentionally left blank as a way of humanizing a confusing character and tensions rise as we see a person’s life slowly crumble around them due to the abnormal behaviors they cannot control. We don’t need some false chance at redemption where if the protagonist could just do this one thing everything could be better. Merely suggesting that counteracts the entirety of a character that is meant to be a difficult, beautiful tragedy with both social anxieties and mental instability. These problems cannot possibly be fixed with a simple solution, which is precisely what makes their tragedy so beautiful to watch.
Sarah Silverman has great potential as a dramatic actor, but her chops are squandered in this film. It aspires to a higher dramatic height, and when it succeeds (which isn’t often), it closely resemble Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. In fact, it’s almost as if I Smile Back had the template right in front of their eyes, but couldn’t be bothered to read the SparkNotes.