I Smile Back (2015)


When she’s not popping pills, downing booze, or snorting coke, Elaine “Laney” Brooks is a pretty good mom to her two young children, Eli and Janey. She packs them lunch and she drives them to school and she hugs them and kisses them and tells them how much she loves them. She’s also a pretty good wife to her husband Bruce… when she’s not cheating on him with her best friend’s spouse or with sleazy strangers in seedy bars. But that’s the drugs and the alcohol and the cocaine talking. Laney’s condition—depression—isn’t one of her own making. It all started when her father walked out on her when she was a kid.
     “My Dad left when I was nine. That’s the whole story. He kissed me goodnight, and that’s the last time I saw him.”
     So yeah, she has daddy issues. She’s also not taking her lithium—not that there’s a whole lot of room for it in her system.
     In I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman strips herself bare. It’s a brave and believable performance, a better part than the film’s overall sum. For as good as Silverman is in the film, which is based on the book by Amy Koppelman, Adam Salky’s domestic drama never moves much beyond the conceit of the sarcastic Jewish-American stand-up struggling with mental illness and addiction.
     The comedian-turned-dramatic actor is not a new phenomenon, of course. Not by a long shot. In fact, it’s almost a rite of passage for any funnyman—or woman—seeking industry “credibility” (even though most, ironically, would tell you that comedy is harder). Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler—they’ve all switched allegiances at one time or another. Fewer female comedians overall mean fewer crossover hits, but Whoopi Goldberg, Mo’Nique, Kristen Wiig, and Tina Fey have all attempted more serious roles on camera, and (mostly) impressed. Even Emma Thompson, whom we think of more as a Merchant-Ivory staple, started out in television sketch comedy.
     But Silverman deserves a better script. Josh Charles (TV’s The Good Wife) is on hand as her sympathetic, frustrated husband, and Skylar Gaertner and Shayne Coleman are solid as the kids.

(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth

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