I Smile Back (2015)

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“Nobody tells you that it’s terrifying to love something so much.”

I Smile Back is one of those movies that has unknown depth to it, unable to really dive down or sink in because it wears floaties on both arms, keeping its head above water when what it really needed to do was just drown in the misery and the sadness. That may seem like the low road to take, but it is the correct one because that’s where this lead character prefers to spend her time living to die. Along the way she pops pills and does cocaine and drinks straight vodka. The difficulties might seem to be common of a bored house wife: unhappily married to a good guy, detached from children she loves, incapable of putting up with upper middle class dinner talks. All scenarios that can push a person living the metaphorical high life to the literal one. And yet there is a bigger problem stirring the emotional boiling pot that is never fleshed out. I Smile Back boils over with grace, lacking the fire and the heat to leave a mark.

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The film’s tagline is “Love desperately. Live recklessly,” and those words are the motto by which Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) dutifully and happily abides. Laney’s life is a cakewalk, except that it really isn’t. While a caring and nurturing mother, she’s an adulterating spouse to Bruce (Josh Charles). We sense that their relationship has become routine and that Laney lacks any sense of excitement. Even from the open, shots are juxtaposed showing her posh suburban interactions with more intimate scenes spent numbing away the frustration and mundane aspects of married life. We also sense that Bruce knows his wife has problems, and still he stays, emboldening her and hoping she can be the woman that he and the kids need her to be. Laney can’t. She’d rather risk playing with fire than grab the extinguisher.

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In all likelihood people will be drawn to this movie because of Silverman. She’s a comedy titan, and with this being her first foray into dramatic territory, she really does give a solid performance. You can tell it’s new to her; the lack of distinct expressions make some really dark scenes feel jokey. But this is about as exposed a role you can tackle as an actress, and while slightly similar to the unearned remarks of “bravery” Kristen Wiig was touted with for the miserable Welcome to Me, Silverman brings a deeply honest level of passion and understanding to the role. She has publicly acknowledged her own battles with depression, revealing to us parts of her life that clearly spill over into her portrayal of the troubled Laney. Silverman is very good, as is Charles as always, and it’s unfortunate that both are stuck in a film without much emphasis. I Smile Back is less than 90 minutes, and despite the conciseness lacks some desperate urgency.

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Laney’s problems are apparent yet go unnoticed and largely ignored. So do the deficiencies in the writing and the directing here. I Smile Back can occasionally feel troubling all while it constantly settles for the easy way out. It is, in more ways than one, a lot like the character of Laney. However, the script presents an emotional feast without picking up the fork and digging in, like a stubborn child refusing to eat when in actuality he or she is famished. To Silverman’s credit, she gives life to the underwritten Laney, looking off in the distance or down the bottom of the bottle with gazes of desperation and a dearth of happiness. Her destruction is ugly in a movie too tidy to really embellish the brutality and severity of her decisions and actions. I Smile Back is a thin film trying to be dense, and it would have been better off doing exactly what it already knew it needed to do.

“We all want to be something better than we are.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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