Silverman Proves She’s No Clown in “I Smile Back”

by Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

With “I Smile Back,” Sarah Silverman joins the likes of Robin Williams and other standup comics who proved their alacrity with serious material in movies.

Laney (Silverman) is a despicable, self-loathing housewife who engages in repeated acts of debasement to punish herself for wrongdoing. Despite a devoted, loving husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), and two sweet children, Laney follows a spiral of self-destruction aided and abetted by drugs, alcohol, and adultery after she stops taking her prescribed Lithium.

The movie itself is a grim, harrowing tale of addiction and upper-middle class ennui, and it provides no real illumination. We’re led to believe Laney’s problems may stem at least in part from her father abandoning the family when she was nine; in the final act, she goes to see him for the first time since he left, discovering he has a wife and a young daughter.

This sends Laney on yet another bender, which is the pattern of the movie. She goes to rehab/detox, seems better, then falls off the wagon. Her father talks about how his mother may have been an addict, she goes straight to the bar. Her son nails his piano recital, she retreats to a bathroom for some cocaine.

Her husband gives her chance after chance, and the love of her young kids is–of course–unconditional, but by the end of the movie, after yet another misadventure, Laney is like the main character of that old spiritual “Sinnerman,” the most famous version of which was recorder by Nina Simone: “I run to the rock, please hide me, lord// But the rock cried out, I can’t hide you,” “So I run to the river, it was bleedin’//I run to the sea, it was bleedin’,” “So I run to the river, it was boilin’//I run to the sea, it was boilin'”, “So I run to the lord, please hide me, lord//But the lord said, go to the devil,” “So I ran to the devil, he was waitin’.”

As lacking as the film might be at times–although it earns points from me for being brave enough to follow its premise to its logical conclusion, not resorting to facile answers or happy endings–Silverman is a revelation. We’ve always seen her smarts and talent, but this is on an entirely new level. Many funny comics have gone serious with aplomb, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. Comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin; there needs to be lots of pain to be really funny. Comics are often dark people, and Lenny Bruce once told us the equation for comedy was pain plus time. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Silverman in movies–serious and funny–in the future.

The film is just average, 50, on the 20-80 scale, but worth seeing for Silverman’s bravura performance.

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