“Rise and shine, beautiful.”
These are the words her loving husband Bruce (Josh Charles, The Good Wife) uses to wake Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman, Take This Waltz) on a daily basis. Beauty surrounds Mr. and Mrs. Brooks: their children are beautiful, their home, their cars, their neighborhood — everything is beautiful, at least on the surface.
Operating strictly on the down-low, Laney subsists on a steady diet of cocaine, alcohol and prescription amphetamines, not to mention sexual liaisons with her best friend’s husband (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom). How long will it be until Bruce realizes that she’s gone off her meds?
I know, I know. Going off one’s meds has become the official replacement for “He just hasn’t been the same since he came back from ‘Nam,” in terms of providing an easy explanation and set-up for all manner of psychotic behavior, in all manner of feature films — graded A to Z — and television stories. But hey, it works, right? Who doesn’t know someone, or at least someone who knows someone?
Whether it’s ultimately a blessing or a curse, I’ve witnessed this form of mental illness, close-up. I’ve known several self-medicating victims of profound depression and seen the battle scars (internal and external) that accrue.
What I’ve never seen before is such a realistic and convincing portrayal of such a person committed to screen as the one given here by Sarah Silverman. Gone are the trappings we’ve come to associate with her pixieish standup comic persona: the elementary schoolgirl threads, that cherubic smile, the rapier wit, rolling off her tongue in that baby-doll voice.
Laney’s voice has a brittle timbre, and her face, though remarkably beautiful and still smooth as an ice rink, radiates with an intensity that comes from inside, where frayed nerve ends spark and sizzle just below the skin.
The theatrical release of I Smile Back last fall came and went so quickly that basically only critics wound up seeing it, resulting in a bushel of mixed reviews — though, considering how many varied critical forums there are these days, what film doesn’t ultimately wind up with mixed reviews?
Common among the negative pieces were strikes against director Adam Salky (Dare) and the screenplay by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman, adapted from Ms. Koppelman’s novel.
Too episodic, too relentlessly downbeat, they said. Where are the big insights? Where’s the bigger picture?
To be fair, I Smile Back doesn’t present the full arc of Laney’s life, or serve as an instructive primer on the nature of addiction. There are no big insights, to be sure — this despite a stint in rehab, where Laney encounters a perceptive and sympathetic counselor (well played by Terry Kinney, The Mentalist). On the other hand, director Salky seems as committed as Silverman does in terms of relating Laney’s inner experience, often employing claustrophobic framing and over-blown lighting for illustrative purposes.
Yes, the film is elliptical; a celluloid map detailing one self-destructive woman’s scorched earth campaign, and a relatively brief one at that, topping out at a scant but extremely fraught eighty-five minutes.
No, the film isn’t perfect; though excellent also, Josh Charles’ portrayal of Bruce Brooks gets short shrift here. Ditto a wonderful cameo by Chris Sarandon (Fright Night), appearing as Laney’s estranged father. In fact, several characters seem to be little more than plot propellers with names.
It’s hard to fault Broad Green Pictures for their DVD presentation, however. Underscoring Laney’s sense of removal from the rest of the world, cinematographer Eric Lin (Rudderless) lenses the action with a subtle touch of frost, which comes through so clearly that you might want to put on a sweater before watching. Sound is equally present and accounted for per a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with an additional Spanish dub available. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also on hand.
The set’s lone extra is an edited interview with Silverman from the Toronto Film Festival, where the actress takes questions from the audience and discusses her process while making the film. Though Silverman has been vocal about her own dealings with depression, I’d caution anyone from assuming that her she was merely “being herself,” as opposed to acting. Just because you’ve personally experienced something doesn’t necessarily mean that you can play it effectively on screen. Case in point: look at all those movies where Elvis failed to convince that he was a pop singing sensation.
Five days after this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Silverman appeared as a special guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, ostensibly to promote the release of I Smile Back on DVD. Accepting compliments from Maher on a job well done, the comedienne shyly stated that she was very proud of the film, and hoped that her performance would garner an Oscar nomination.
As I said, this was five days after the Oscars, which means that Silverman was clearly joking. Still, I have to wonder: what was the Academy’s excuse?