Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) has problems. She tells her husband (Josh Charles) she doesn’t want her children to have a dog because they will fall in love with the dog, causing them to be devastated when it eventually dies. Since things die, why bother loving them in the first place? He patiently explains that loving the pet and losing the pet is a part of life, a part that they will have to confront, like it or not. He is sympathetic. He knows that she is in the clutches of depression and despair, but he believes that he might be able to love her enough to make everything better. What he doesn’t know is that after his wife dropped the kids off at school, she went to a neighbor’s house and snorted several lines of cocaine before letting the neighbor sodomize her. Surfaces can be deceiving.
Laney then goes downstairs to prepare sack lunches for her children, drinks a bottle of vodka, calls a fellow parent to scream at her, does a little more coke, and then wanders into her daughter’s room and proceeds to masturbate with her daughter’s teddy bear while her daughter sleeps a foot or two away. After Laney climaxes, she breaks down in tears.
And this is just the first 15 or so minutes of I Smile Back, an 85-minute joyless slog through rock bottom after rock bottom. Unfortunately, the business with the bear comes early in the movie, meaning that after Laney admits she has a problem and checks into rehab, it is only a matter of time until she relapses and relapses hard. There isn’t any suspense to it, just a question of how hard she’ll hit the ground.
Not every movie needs a happy ending, nor should we expect one, but movies should offer some sort of insight for the viewer. In the case of I Smile Back, there is no insight, just the endurance contest of watching a woman with mental illness and addiction. Director Adam Salky seems content with simply sitting back and watching the trainwreck, which kind of makes Silverman’s performance seem brave, but it is so stripped clean of any pretense that it never manages to engage. Silverman is a phenomenal performer, but even the best performances require direction. Case in point: Silverman’s excellent supporting role as an alcoholic mother in Sarah Polley’s criminally under-seen Take this Waltz.
With no release or catharsis, I Smile Back finds no joy in existence and no reason to go on living. Why sober up in a world this miserable and vapid? I Smile Back is set in a New York suburb filled with white people, white houses, white cabinets, white walls, and pure white snow covering everything else. In the middle of all this shocking whiteness stands Sarah Silverman, with her jet-black hair, a broken version of her Jewish comedian persona in a cookie-cutter world. There are lots of reasons that people don’t fit in a particular world, but if that is all I Smile Back’s got, then it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
I Smile Back (2015)
Directed by Adam Salky
Written by Paige Dylan, Amy Koppelman
Based on the book by Amy Koppelman
Produced by Richard Arlook, Mike Harrop, Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Starring: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Mia Barron
Broad Green Pictures, Rated R, Running time 85 minutes, Opened Nov. 6, 2015.