In an era where scything political wit and a Yale postgraduate degree are seemingly the core qualifications for international comedy stardom, it’s unsurprising to see alumni of SNL, Upright Citizens’ Brigade and similar ilk capably turn their hands to more varied roles in films and television. Yet even in a universe where Moss from The IT Crowd writes and directs a Dostoyevsky adaptation, and Jon Stewart has graduated from the glib Bush-bashing of early Daily Show bits to making a political thriller with Gael Garcia Bernal, it is super weird to watch Sarah Silverman take on a serious role as a shattered, drug-addled housewife without once making a gross joke about being on her period. That, however, is the central draw of I Smile Back, Adam Salky’s adaptation of an Amy Koppelman book of the same name. While the comedian has made a handful of forays into dramatic acting, most notably in Sarah Polley’s 2011 Take This Waltz and in an array of guest-star appearances in US TV dramas such as Masters of Sex and The Good Wife, Salky’s film represents her first dramatic lead. The film, though, seems awestruck by the coup of landing Silverman in the lead role of Laney, and proceeds to fill its slight 85 minutes with endless scenes of her moral and behavioural demise. The disintegrating family life of a well-off suburban couple may be smart career fodder for a comedian both feted and reviled for her abrasive immaturity, but Silverman has misjudged here: I Smile Back is no dissection of middle-class malaise, but a vehicle for tedious downward-spiral moralising.
There is some value in how Salky invigorates the novel’s setting in affluent upstate New York on screen. The location of Laney and husband Bruce’s home, the exact nature of their relationships with the two or three identikit couples who form their social circle, and even the spatial geometry of the house they inhabit, are all somehow off, incongruous – uncomfortable. It sometimes seems unseasonably grey and wintry, or jarringly naturalistic for a scene or two, and the camerawork effectively animates this consuming gloom of paranoia and depression. It seems that the long-time preferred method of presenting suburban decay through grotesque hyperreality1 has had its day, too – I Smile Back’s best moments come where it shuns any sense of ironism for immediate and impactful human drama. Honing in closely on the lurid aspects of Laney’s lifestyle always feels like a kind of smirking, reflexive reference to Silverman’s comic persona, but where the film restrains itself from doing so, the strength of her performance is allowed to consume her existing image.
None of this leaves as much of an impression as the ceaseless debauchery, which is presented clumsily as Laney’s ‘struggles’ with addiction. The script is rife with dialogue clangers that puncture the gravity of the substance abuse and mental anguish contained in its story. Silverman, whose performance has been lauded even in pans of the film,2 strains to maintain her character for more than a few scenes at a time, resulting in stand-up-circuit delivery of crass lines like “it’s impossible to love a girl whose ass you just fucked,” which seem designed to cynically remind us of her incongruous casting.
Indeed, whenever the film aims to employ the persona and acerbic style of Silverman-the-comic rather than Silverman-the-crossover, it fails dreadfully – a scene where Laney disrupts a vital sales pitch of Bruce’s by arguing that housewifery is akin to prostitution doesn’t seem tragically uncomfortable, so much as unpitiable. The whole checklist for any aspiring hard-hitting character study is here: extramarital sex in the skeeziest and most classless places possible, a gratuitous scene of Laney masturbating with her daughter’s teddy bear(!), the obligatory violent ending. A half-baked digression into Laney’s ostensibly traumatic childhood is ruined by her absentee father being basically nice and eminently forgivable. Ultimately, we’re left with nowhere to go: rather than the complex victim of both narcissism and circumstance that the film wants her to be, Silverman’s character is the architect of her own demise.
I Smile Back may present the milieu of mental illness in a compelling way, but its gamble on its star backfires. Silverman is hardly inept, but the line between her self-centred comic persona and Laney’s self-defeating nature is blurred too much by a film determined to point giant neon arrows at its casting decision. In an infinite sea of disruptive family dramas and dramatic turns by talented comedians, there’s simply no reason to opt for a film which misses its mark like this one.