Sometimes I’ll be driving down tree-lined roads through a quiet, upscale suburb, past one impressive and sprawling home after another— pristine lawns, Audis and BMWs in the driveways, maybe a basketball hoop by the garage and a kid’s bicycle near the front walk.
And I’ll think:
There’s the life. That’s gotta be a happy family living there.
But of course we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in even the nicest and loveliest of towns. Just because you’re enjoying the trappings of comfort doesn’t mean you’re immune to deep, abiding unhappiness.
So it goes with Sarah Silverman’s Laney in “I Smile Back,” a tough, unbending, sometimes brutally truthful profile of one woman’s addiction and the havoc it wreaks on herself and just about everyone who matters to her.
For some two decades, Silverman has been among the smartest, funniest and most delightfully acerbic stand-ups and comedic actors around — but in the tradition of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey and so many other actors first known for their humorous personae, Silverman has been adding to her repertoire, e.g., the 2011 drama “Take This Waltz.” With “I Smile Back,” Silverman is unforgettable in delivering a brave, vulnerable, irony-free dramatic performance that chilled me to the bone.
Working from a screenplay by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman (who wrote the fine novel of the same name), director Adam Salky wisely allows the writing and the performances to do the heavy lifting, using his camera in a decidedly low-key, indie style without drawing too much attention to stylistic flourishes.
If Laney ever had her stuff together, it was before this story commenced. The first time we see her, she’s coking up in the bathroom while her loving husband Bruce (Josh Charles) shoots hoops outside with her two bright and beautiful children Janey (Shayne Coleman) and Eli (Skylar Gaertner).
Bruce is a successful insurance exec who recently penned a self-help book he pompously describes as a Bible for the here and now; at first he comes across as a bit of a jerk, but the more we see what he has to put up with, the more sympathetic he becomes. (It’s a subtle, effectively steady performance by the always reliable Josh Charles.)
There’s no doubt Laney loves her children to the moon, and she appreciates Bruce and all he does to keep the family together — but nearly every day, she chips away at the fabric of her family because her selfishness and her sickness trump all.
She’s having an affair with a family friend (Thomas Sadoski) that seems based more on their common fondness for coke and pills and booze than any real connection. She’s that one parent who shows up at school and hasn’t read the e-mail about the new security badges everyone must wear, and is unaware of the new parking regulations. She’s always apologizing to her kids for messing up.
Only occasionally does Silverman have the opportunity to invoke her withering style of humor, most prominently in a dinner party scene where she eviscerates a trophy wife. Laney tries to play tough in scenes with a therapist (Terry Kinney) and her father (Chris Sarandon), who abandoned her when she was a little girl, but we can see how deeply wounded she’s been and how seriously screwed-up she is. She’s not “just” a trainwreck — she’s a runaway train who might well do lasting harm not just to herself before she finally crashes.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the veteran Chris Sarandon as Laney’s father, the detour Laney takes to see her dad and the way it plays out is too heavy-handed. The sequence could have been shortened considerably, or perhaps even excised. By that point we know the source of Laney’s base unhappiness. We don’t need it spelled out for us.
Mostly, though, “I Smile Back” is on firm footing in its portrayal of a woman who is on anything BUT firm ground. Silverman doesn’t strike a single false note through the entirety of this performance.
Broad Green Pictures presents a film directed by Adam Salky and written by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content, substance abuse/disturbing behavior, and language). Opens Friday at AMC River East 21 and on demand.