I Smile Back is tough to watch from the start, and it only gets worse. It tells the story of Laney (Sarah Silverman), a housewife struggling with “drugs and daddy issues”, whose primary question of her therapist is, “which do you want to talk about first?” Laney is married with two young children, so her apparent drug and sex addictions are significant problems for a whole number of reasons.
I am by far the least qualified asshole to diagnose Laney, being the only one who’s not a mental health professional. But since Jay’s in a pain and morphine-induced haze right now, and Matt hasn’t seen the movie, you get stuck with me as your tour guide! So here we go.
First, the easy part. Silverman is excellent in the lead role, and is well-deserving of the acclaim she has received so far (nominated for a SAG Award for Best Actress). I found her very believable as a woman who loves her family and truly wants to be part of it despite struggling with all sorts of stuff. That Silverman is so good makes the movie all that more difficult to watch.
Beyond that, it gets much tougher. Because of how difficult the movie is to watch, looking at I Smile Back critically is very hard for me. I did not like watching it but I know I was never supposed to. Nothing that happens in Laney’s life gives us a lot of hope that things are going to get better, and the movie does not end on a happy note (in fact, at the end things are at their very bleakest). Silverman has made us care about Laney by then. I wanted Laney to get better and repair her relationship with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles), so I was hoping for a typical Hollywood ending.
Suffice to say, I did not get a happy ending, and after reflection I think that was the right decision by writers Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman (the latter of whom wrote the book on which the movie is based). But something still was missing, and after staring at this computer screen for a while, I think I have put my finger on it. In a meta sense, the movie is worthwhile because it gives Silverman the chance to show a whole other dimension to her acting. But within the movie itself, I Smile Back didn’t give me anything meaningful.
The only meaning I can find within the movie is that anyone may be struggling with mental health and it’s not easy to recover even if he or she really wants to. And while that’s something I agree with, it’s something I already felt coming in and the story in I Smile Back really didn’t go beyond that basic notion. Everything in the movie was consistent with that idea but it felt like we were on a fixed path because of it. Looking back, almost all the characters we meet other than Laney are primarily plot devices to give Laney a chance to make another bad decision, and she rarely misses the opportunity. The opportunity that feels missed is on the part of the writers, who rather than fleshing out characters or situations, just keep things moving by giving Laney more chances to do bad things. Because of that, I never felt that seeing these awful things happen onscreen was worth the pain. I never felt any payoff for my discomfort within the movie and I needed there to be something.
Overall, this movie was worth checking out for Silverman’s performance but it’s really not great otherwise. I give it a score of six out of ten.