“I Smile Back” is a brutally realistic penetration into the inner turmoil of extreme depression and addiction. It succeeds in some areas and falters in others but the film became a Sundance sensation and attracts the attention it does not because of the subject but because of its casting.
Stand-up comic and Emmy-award winner Sarah Silverman takes the leading role of Laney Brooks, a damaged woman struggling to overcome her terror of herself and the havoc she wrecks on family and friends.
Somehow everyone has fallen into the age-old pattern of astonishment that a comic can perform a serious role, a shock that has rumbled through criticism and film festivals for decades without anyone, or at least not enough people, asking: What’s the big deal?
If a performer is good at comedy, he — she — should be at least as good at drama. Hell, comedy is the toughest performing nut to crack; if you can do that then drama is easy by comparison.
So good that Sarah Silverman will bring in people to see her being “serious,” but that shouldn’t distract audiences from a movie that confronts serious issues about mental health in these chaotic times.
What works best here, in a movie written by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan from Koppelman’s novel and directed by Adam Salky (“Dare,” 2009), is how clear it is that whatever unease or anxiety Laney’s family feels about her unpredictable behavior it isn’t half as bad as the horror she feels herself.
You can sense in Silverman’s looks and actions that she feels very much alone in confronting her demons; she almost stands outside herself, watching in terror to see what “Laney” will do next.
The movie does the necessary unraveling of the past that perhaps explains why Laney is clinically depressed and addictive — things about her mother and her father and, in a late revelation, her father’s own mother. But sometimes people can fall under the dictatorial commands of depression without any easy explanations.
The movie signposts the spiraling descent into neurotic collapse, enough so that at times “I Smile Back” seems to be playing an unfortunate blame game. But what stays with you after the fade out is the sense that Laney, like many other people, does not have complete control of her own life and maybe no one is to blame.
She is deliberately set up in ideal circumstances: a loving although often self-important breadwinner for a husband (Josh Charles), immaculate two-story New Jersey suburban home, two photogenic children and even a shiny black SUV. It’s all a façade of course. Danger lurks beneath.
She has a reckless affair, with a married social friend and restaurateur (Thomas Sadoski). She does lines of coke, barely bothers to hide her drinking, doesn’t eat much and is this-close to telling off just about anyone who crosses her.
Agreeing to rehab when she hits rock bottom — it turns out the real bottom is much further down — the movie delivers the de rigueur shrink sessions (Terry Kinney is the shrink) to bring you up to date on the “daddy issues” and a childhood that point to roots of her self-destructiveness.
A certain dark humor creeps into the movie at these points but mostly the film handles this in a straightforward fashion. Her husband and kids visit her and then, rather suddenly, she’s all better and back home.
Too quickly, you fear, so you now wait for her to implode again. You don’t wait long.
“I Smile Back” is a little too eager to remain grim and downbeat. Laney is never given much of a chance to pull herself out of her tailspin. This no doubt reflects the real-life situation for many who suffer from depression, but in the movie this feels like a dramatic scheme imposed on its protagonist.
Maddeningly, the movie seeks no resolution, one way or another, for its heroine’s problems. There are a couple of puzzling incidents in the third act that further undermine your confidence the filmmakers have a firm grasp of this very tricky material.
It’s perfectly okay to drive for a downbeat ending but it’s another to simply stop the movie, bang, and then wear that ending as a badge of courage.
Nothing new has been added to anyone’s understanding of these afflictions so the suspicious lingers in the air, as credits roll following an unfinished movie, that “I Smile Back” exists primarily as a showcase for Silverman’s undoubted dramatic talents and an obliteration of her persona as a comedian.
At least there the movie ranks as a success.
Opens: October 23, 2015 (Broadgreen)
Production companies: Koppelman/Levien, in association with Oscar Crosby Productions, Film House Germany
Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Oona Laurence
Director: Adam Salky
Screenwriters: Amy Koppelman, Paige Dylan
Based on a novel by: Amy Koppelman
Producers: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Mike Harrop, Richard Arlook
Executive producers: Skip Klintworth, Jens Meurer, Christian Angermayer
Director of photography: Eric Lin
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Music: Zack Ryan
Costume designer: Cathryn Hunt
Editor: Tamara Meem
R rating, 85 minutes.