Although many are liable to be skeptical of Sarah Silverman in a dramatic role, Adam Salky’s I Smile Back proves that the comedienne is more than capable of carrying her weight in this particular genre. Based on Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel, the film–adapted by Koppelman and Paige Dylan–highlights the destructive nature of Laney Brooks (Silverman) as she grapples with a suburban lifestyle that possesses an all too easily cracked veneer.
Regardless of all the things she has–the understanding husband, the adoring kids and the perfect middle class house–Laney is plagued by the demons of boredom and fear, in addition to the haunting abandonment she experienced when her father left her at nine years old. To cope with the rage and the worry, Laney medicates with a steady combination of uppers, downers and, most importantly, alcohol. Her easy ability to conceal this part of her life and to lie about it when the consequences nearly expose her serve to create this sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality.
Her desire to destroy everything she has built is tempered with her obsessive love for her two children, Eli (Skylar Gaertner) and Janey (Shayne Coleman), as well as the guilt she feels for constantly cheating on her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles). It goes back to that old cliche about doing as much as possible that’s bad for you in order to feel something, anything, at all. But Laney can never seem to reach that point–until she begins to sob loudly to herself one night after dry humping her daughter’s teddy bear while Janey is sleeping, and then crawling to her own room where she says simply, “Help” to Bruce. And help her he does, by checking her into rehab. Reluctant to buy into it at first, Laney finds herself confessing the traumas of her life to her doctor, who urges her to take the risk of loving someone the way she loves her children, knowing that they might one day leave her–just as her father did. After a month in “the program,” as some might call it, Laney returns to her life, seemingly cured.
However, signs of the frustrated, pent up version of herself emerge at a birthday party for a friend named Susan (Mia Barron), whose husband, Donny (Thomas Sadoski), she had an affair with in part because of the drugs he furnished her with. Before Donny gives a bathetic speech about his love for Susan, Bruce tries to close in on a potential life insurance client with a much younger wife. Laney balks when she says how much she admires Bruce for being able to write a book and that she wants to write one as well. Laney chimes in, “What do you want to write a book about?” The wife, knowing full well she could never do it, back tracks by saying, “You know, maybe like a children’s book? I’m not sure yet.” Laney goads her subtly by asserting, “I’m thinking about writing a book.” The wife asks, “Really? On what?” Laney tersely responds, “Prostitution.” Bruce tries to downplay her controversial topic by noting,”Prostitution? Come on honey, you don’t know anything about prostitution.” Laney goes in for the kill of the insult by concluding, “It’s the ultimate hypocrisy. It’s illegal to sell your body, right? But if you’re rich enough, it’s perfectly acceptable. They just call it being a wife.”
It is moments like these that indicate just how enraged and rebellious Laney is toward her existence and all that it entails. When Bruce urges her to come to an insurance conference with him for a weekend upstate, she reluctantly accepts, even though this is an area of New York she can’t stand because it is home to her father. While there, she can’t resist going to confront him, finding that he has a new daughter, one that he actually seems to be interested in. This visit sends her over the edge, spiraling her right back to where she started in terms of self-control. She goes to a bar where she encounters an attractive bartender she invariably has a dalliance with. When she returns to Bruce after missing the cocktail party they were supposed to attend together, his anger can no longer be contained. He berates her for her easy ability to lie to his face and tells her he needs to be away from her for a few days to see if he even wants to be with her anymore. While, of course, he does, Laney’s comportment makes it impossible.
The genius of I Smile Back is present in the fact that it’s the type of film where one assumes Laney has to get better, change her behavior in order to hold on to what she loves. But alas, in a gruesome conclusion, we find that, sometimes, our vices (not our love) have a distinct knack for conquering all.