There’s something inherently compelling about watching a comedic actor or actress try out their dramatic muscles. For the last few years, comedian turned actress Sarah Silverman has been dipping her toes in more serious waters, but I Smile Back is her first completely serious role and she really knocks it out of the park. The film itself is flawed, but her work, along with some of her supporting players, lifts it up enough to be worth a mild recommendation. Silverman is excellent though, let me stress that much to you all. She was strong in things like Ashby and especially Take this Waltz, but none of that compares to what she does in I Smile Back. Director Adam Salky allows the movie to sermonize a bit too much in the second half, but when Salky is just making this a character study, Silverman soars and takes the flick along with her. Had the project overall been sturdier overall, we might have been talking about her as a potential contender for a Best Actress nomination. As it stands now, this is just a great performance in a movie that only sometimes deserves it. I’m recommending I Smile Back, but it’s mostly for Silverman’s performance. If you see it, see it for her work. You won’t regret that decision, I can more or less assure you of that much.
If you were to run into Laney Brooks (Silverman) out on Long Island where she lives, you’d think she has the perfect life. A successful and loving husband in Bruce (Josh Charles), two cute kids in Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman), as well as a giant house to compliment her big luxury SUV. You wouldn’t know the truth though, as Laney is prone to doing as many bad things as possible in a given day. After dropping her son and daughter off at school, she might wind up sleeping with married friend of the family Donny (Thomas Sadoski), doing cocaine, and just not being responsible at all. This clearly has gone on for a while, but when Bruce and her children begin to notice, Laney is forced to deal with rehab and making changes in her life. The thing is, while they want her to be clean and who they think she is, Laney isn’t sure that she does. Still, she makes the attempt, but if you don’t want to help yourself, can anyone actually do the trick?
As previously mentioned, the star and main selling point of I Smile Back is Sarah Silverman. She not only gives the performance of her career so far (yes, it beats what she does in Take this Waltz), I’d argue this is one of the ten best performances by a lead actress that I’ve seen throughout 2015 so far. She’s raw, real, and laid bare, both emotionally and physically. This is a naked performance in every way you can think of. The work speaks for itself, but when you think of her comedic background, it only makes this heavy dramatic work all the more impressive. Josh Charles gets a solid supporting role here, playing a decent man who just is on a totally different page as his wife. Kudos to Charles for not playing the part as someone worth being cruel to and cheating on. Thomas Sadoski does good work as well, though his role turns out to be underwritten in the end. Still, Sadoski is able to do what he can. In addition to the aforementioned Shayne Coleman and Skylar Gaertner, the rest of the supporting cast includes Mia Barron, Kristin Griffith, Terry Kinney, Oona Laurence, and Chris Sarandon, among others. Still, this is all about Silverman, with Charles and Sadoski next in line but paling in comparison. Watch for Silverman to potentially score an Independent Spirit Award for this role.
As good as Silverman is, the direction by Adam Salky and the screenplay by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman (based on Koppelman’s novel) is far less solid. In fact, some of their overly melodramatic choices nearly sink I Smile Back. Salky embraces the cliches that Dylan and Koppelman throw out, while in the third act all three overdose (no pun intended) on moralizing/sermonizing. A far more subtle approach would have yielded more powerful results for the flick. We know what Laney is doing is wrong, so if you have Silverman killing it like she is here, why go over the top? It’s just unnecessary and costs the movie dearly. It’s not enough to keep my thumb from being up, but it was close at times.
Overall, I Smile Back is just good enough to recommend, but it’s Silverman’s performance that truly makes the film. Without her, it wouldn’t be even close to the same thing. Character studies of troubled individuals work best when the filmmakers aren’t overly or overtly judging the protagonist, and that’s a rule broken here. Luckily, Silverman, along with Charles and Sadoski, help make up for that. Again, this is a rather mild endorsement, but you can do worse than this movie. I Smile Back is worth seeing for Silverman, so give it a shot and see if you’re as impressed with her as I was…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!