Walking into I Smile Back, a movie advertising a very dour Sarah Silverman in the festival photo still, I half expected a repeat of Cake. A movie where a comedic actor grumps around pouting until we all want to commit suicide so she can have a new bullet point on her resume touting versatility. There are a lot of festival movies that feel like they were conceived by an actor’s publicist, and the best policy is “just say no.” Here, just take my esteem! Please don’t make me watch it, please!
I Smile Back isn’t that, or at least, it’s a better version of it. There was a moment where a crying Sarah Silverman, her nose wet from doing cocaine, sneaks into her daughter’s room and masturbates in the prone on top of a teddy bear. It was at that exact moment, the room deadly silent between Silverman’s stifled sobs, that a man sitting in my row began snoring. LOUDLY. While Sarah Silverman hit rock bottom, masturbating with her daughter’s teddy bear. It was the best moment of the film, probably the entire festival.
There’s a good movie in I Smile Back, buried beneath all the moping. Sarah Silverman’s soccer mom on the brink rails coke off her iPhone, gets buttf*cked by her manstress, and worst of all, double parks at her kids’ obnoxious helicopter parent school. All to escape the hell of being married to her boring chode of a husband. He’s written some kind of self-help book called “Hedging Your Bets Against God,” about the value of life insurance or something, a nice decorative touch atop the boring-insurance-agent trope. Thing is, Silverman’s character rarely seems to be enjoying herself during all this naughtiness, except for a few brief moments, mostly during the buttf*cking. And who wants to watch someone act out if they’re not even enjoying it?
It’s not just that I’d rather watch Sarah Silverman do cocaine and anal than work through her issues with a therapist (though, duh, I would), it’s also that all the moping and whining paints her character into a victimhood corner. And victims are no fun. It’s the escaping that’s the fun. Feeling trapped isn’t a story, it’s a backstory. I Smile Back’s script has them inverted.
Also, I’d rather watch adults dressed like children and have to use my imagination than try to believe child actors this bad. To be fair to the child actors here, or to their presumably creepy stage parents, I Smile Back‘s script isn’t doing them any favors with its nauseating infantilized dialogue. “Yay, Daddy, you’re here!” “Mommy, I wuv you this much!” Gag me, you Hallmark freaks. At one point, Silverman’s character is talking to her son who’s in the tub and I thought “Wait, isn’t that kid like 10?” A 10-year-old boy whose mom still bathes him is weird, and I didn’t get the sense the filmmakers knew this. Don’t just breeze through a serial killer’s origin story and act like its a sweet family moment.
Sarah Silverman is a capable Dramatic Actress willing to do Serious Movies full of Sadness and Tasteful Nudity. This should not be a revelation, she’s great. So I can’t give the movie much credit for it. I Smile Back has moments of brilliance, mostly the ones where Silverman’s character takes control over her spiral out of control. But the film seems almost embarrassed that we should enjoy them. Why should we be? I’d rather the writer own and explore those subconscious urges to do drugs, have extra-marital anal sex, and masturbate on teddy bears than try to cure them. A character healing may make for a nice arc and a happy ending, but it’s only the rationalization for what we really want to see.
Grade: C+ (a new ending and a few cuts could easily bump it up to B range)
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.