There's an undeniable fearlessness to Sarah Silverman's lead turn as Laney, the desperately troubled housewife at the center of "I Smile Back." There's also a whiff of overcompensation in the comedian's choice of such insistently downbeat material. But what's truly noteworthy about Silverman's bid for thespian legitimacy is that she holds her own in this addiction drama, finding nuance in a movie that's constructed almost entirely of empty clichés about suburban ennui.
With its oversized houses and pained silences, director Adam Salky's feature offers a tinny spin on Cheever Country. The screenplay by Paige Dylan (daughter-in-law of Bob Dylan) and Amy Koppelman, based on the latter's novel, puts a few barely dimensional characters in orbit around Laney, among them her go-getter husband (Josh Charles) and the married neighbor (Thomas Sadoski) with whom she gets together for coke-fueled sex. Everyone variously loves Laney, worries about her, hurts her or hastens her downward spiral. Through no fault of the actors, they exist only in terms of her nosedive into degradation.
There are a few sharp exchanges, notably a session with a rehab therapist (Terry Kinney) and a passive-aggressive pas de deux between Laney and her estranged father (Chris Sarandon). Mainly, though, the screenwriters have no interest in who Laney is beyond her damage and economic privilege, no inkling of what interests her other than self-medicating. That she once showed kindness to a homeless man — information that arrives in a laughably obvious back story delivery device — is supposed to redeem her.
Yet without pandering to audience sympathy, Silverman's dark shadings lend something unexpected and real to the role. It's in the unhinged neediness with which Laney hugs her children, the self-absorbed way she wields a lollipop, the brutal precision of a cutting remark.
"I Smile Back"
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, substance abuse/disturbing behavior, and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.