I Smile Back

I try to avoid other reviews before penning my own, but I couldn’t help noticing this one in Entertainment Weekly, because I wholeheartedly agree with the last line of it: “If Silvermanโ€™s going to bare her soul this nakedly, she deserves a better film to do it in.” Yep, exactly.

I follow Sarah Silverman to the ends of the earth. She is a hilarious, beautiful, inspiring, talented, and complex performer, and one of my favorites, in case that onslaught of adjectives didn’t make it obvious. I was so excited to see her delve deeper into drama, too, since she nailed it in Ashby. But she really deserves better than I Smile Back. As Laney Brooks, a loving mother and wife who suffers from drug addiction and depression and probably bipolar disorder, she really does bare her soul. You can see the heaviness in her face get heavier with each scene as her own mind wears her out and prevents her from living the pleasant suburban life she’s aware that she has.

By the end of the film, though, I felt like I knew a lot about Silverman and nothing about Laney. That doesn’t mean Silverman was playing herself, not at all. She just revealed so much as an actress that I felt closer to her. And yet Laney remained a shell, an idea of a person, with no personality to hook into and no specificity provided in her dialogue. It’s no fault of Silverman’s. She did the best she could with the material she was given, and it was an emotional performance above all else. I hate to point the finger at the writers, because I love and support writers, but there was something missing from the script. It’s a paradox that a film depicting so much vulnerability isn’t actually that vulnerable.

Josh Charles, as Laney’s husband Bruce, was also pretty great, but Bruce failed to make us understand why he and Laney truly fell in love. The chemistry was there, but it was unclear why. Again, not the fault of the actors. The dialogue was high-concept, not based in believable memories and niche histories, and niche is what brings characters off the page and into our heads. And Laney and Bruce’s kids, while cute, did nothing but spout cheesy, unrealistic lines.

And so, even though Laney did increasingly despicable things as the movie progressed, I couldn’t get mad at her because I didn’t know or understand her. She never felt like a real person. She’s a cautionary tale, I suppose, to the horrors of life without medication, but I never got the true sense that she wanted to overcome her problems anyway. There isn’t a resolution, which is fine, but there isn’t really an ending, either. Kinda like The Sopranos, except I felt more cheated somehow. Here’s hoping Ashby gets a wide release and the world can see more of Sarah’s serious side applied to a fully-formed character in a fully-enjoyable movie.

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