Comedians who act with any level of success seem drawn to eventually delve into a meaty dramatic role. It’s a way for them to show their acting talents don’t just hinge on their comic abilities. And while not every one of these attempts works, those that do tend to draw attention. Unlike many of her comic peers, Sarah Silverman’s comic persona is very specifically built around an exaggerated image, which has helped ease her transition into character roles. With I Smile Back, though, Silverman finally dives into a role that’s far removed from her comic persona. Her performance is tremendous, but it’s set in a film that doesn’t know what to do with her character other than simply observe.
Laney Brooks is a housewife in a New Jersey suburb with a serious self-destructive tendency. She runs to the bathroom during dinner to snort coke. She drops her kids off at school, then goes to a hotel to have sex with a married friend of the family. Her wakeup call comes one evening, after she takes some pills with a bottle of alcohol, then goes into her daughter’s room, curls up on the floor, and aggressively grinds her crotch into a teddy bear with her face pressed into the carpet to muffle her groans. From scene to scene, it’s clear that Laney doesn’t enjoy what she does; she just can’t help it. It’s a shocking descent, and while it leads Laney into rehab, her eventual release makes the possibility of relapsing seem entirely possible.
Silverman is a talented performer, but with Laney, she disappears into the role completely. Even when Laney appears to be happy, it’s clear that it’s an attempt on Laney’s part. She’s paired well with Josh Charles, who plays her salesman husband with an obvious amount of love for his wife, but an inability to actually provide help. He tries to encourage her, telling her that he wants her to be happy like she once was. Like many people who have loved ones grappling with mental illnesses, he means well, but doesn’t actually help.
But I Smile Back doesn’t do more than observe Laney. She’s either in the midst of a bad streak, or biding her time until one comes around. The film relies on Silverman’s performance to tell a story, but the film never gets inside Laney’s head. It never explores what lies behind Laney’s behavior outside of anything she might say out loud, which largely consists of father abandonment issues. By focusing on Laney’s actions, I Smile Back becomes a torturous series of Laney’s times acting out, with an occasional lull in action. While that may work for Silverman’s performance, it doesn’t make the overall film work.