Addiction narratives are more alike than unalike, and the only distinctive aspect of I Smile Back is that its depressed addict, Laney Brooks, is played by the raunchy comedian Sarah Silverman in her first major dramatic role. She’s very good. Laney is a rich girl who was abandoned as a child by her dad, and though she’s married with two kids to a doting insurance executive (Josh Charles), she’s still acting out like crazy — boozing, snorting cocaine, picking up strange and not-strange men, among them the husband of a close friend. Her masochism has an aura of entitlement. She wants to be cruisin‘ for a bruisin‘.
Scripted by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman, the movie improves on Koppelman’s ungainly novel but is generally dreary and light on insight. Director Adam Salky steers clear of the usual addiction-movie clichés, but he doesn’t have anything to replace them with, so it’s as if all the connective tissue is gone. We don’t need a reductionist view of Laney’s reasons for her behavior — but we need some view. Laney’s rehab stint is given such short shrift that you barely register it.
But you do watch Silverman, hoping she’ll find a way to tap into her considerable stand-up gifts to merge this dim portrait with her wilder onstage persona — the grotesquely uncensored doppelgänger of an over-entitled, solipsistic, upper-middle-class American Jewish female. She’s a little tense in her early scenes, her face not as open to the camera as you’d wish. (Just being is tough for performers who’ve built a career on outlandish caricature.) But she grows on you. Her Laney signals desperation through her smiles, which freeze on her face before slowly transforming into grimaces. Laney wants to be a grown-up and a good mom, but the role won’t take. But Silverman’s best scenes are the ones in which we see the impish child practically daring a daddy figure (husband, lover, scuzzy pick-up) to whack her, the pain the only way of affirming — in her mind — that someone cares.
The last sequence is much more vivid than it is in the novel: For the first time, you see in Silverman’s eyes that Laney has finally done what she has been trying to do — destroy everything. And you see she knows what she has lost and will have to evolve to be able to recover from the knowledge. The end of I Smile Back is daring enough to make you regret all the flaccid, poorly-shaped scenes that have preceded it. The material just isn’t rich enough to be free-floating. It needs to take you behind that smile into the purgatory of never being able to grow up.