Review: Variety praises Sarah in I Smile Back

VarietyBannerBelow are the Sarah-related sections of Scott Foundas’s January 25 review in Variety of the Sundance showing of I Smile Back.

Rarely has a performer striven so concertedly to shed any trace of his/her comedy roots as Sarah Silverman does over the course of “I Smile Back,” an addiction drama in which the acerbic comedienne gives the kind of warts-and-all, let-it-all-hang-out (body parts, fluids, etc.) turn that awards’ consultants dreams are made of. But Silverman’s performance is more than an attention-getting stunt, and it’s her hellish rendering of a New Jersey housewife under the influence of drugs, alcohol and mental illness that elevates director Adam Salky’s sophomore feature above the suburban-nightmare movie-of-the-week it otherwise often resembles. Even with the buzz sure to ignite around its Sundance premiere, “Smile” will prove a tough sell commercially, where more sensitive types will blanch at the film’s Olympian gauntlet of self-abuse, reckless endangerment and public humiliation.

Playing addicts of one kind or another has been a tried-and-true recipe for funnymen (and -women) seeking serious-actor street cred, from Michael Keaton in “Clean and Sober” to Jennifer Aniston in the recent “Cake” — neither of whom had to play a scene quite like the one Silverman does early on, as her Laney Brooks stumbles into her sleeping daughter’s bedroom and begins masturbating atop the child’s teddy bear. And that’s just for starters. Indeed, the Laney we meet at the start of “I Smile Back” is already significantly damaged goods, having stopped taking her prescription lithium and slipped back into a series of old, self-destructive habits: cocaine, vodka, amphetamines and torrid afternoon sex with the restaurateur husband (Thomas Sadoski) of a close family friend (Mia Barron). But because Laney is a practiced addict, she manages to conceal the evidence that things are coming undone, for a while, until her efforts become like spackling paste on volcanic rifts.

…What propels the film forcefully along is Silverman, who pulls us down so deeply inside Laney’s sickness that everything else seems to fade away (much as it does in the character’s own life). Though one can see occasional flashes of the actress’ sardonic standup persona in scenes where a drunken Laney castigates a fellow parent from her kids’ school or insults a dinner-party guest, this is fundamentally a performance that doesn’t solicit the audience’s pity or complicity — or even, for long stretches, anything resembling our sympathy.

But it does transmit an acute understanding, of how some people can come to feel like prisoners inside their own bodies, helpless to dispel the urges that compel them. There are echoes here of real-life cases like that of Diane Schuler, the Long Island soccer mom who killed eight people while driving under the influence in 2009, and you come away from “I Smile Back” with a better sense of how something like that might happen. It’s there in Silverman’s eyes, which flicker with an exquisite, agonized mixture of pleasure and shame as she plunges once more back into the abyss.

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