Rarely has a performer striven so concertedly to shed any trace of his/her comedy roots as Sarah Silverman does over the course of “I Smile Back,” an addiction drama in which the acerbic comedienne gives the kind of warts-and-all, let-it-all-hang-out (body parts, fluids, etc.) turn that awards’ consultants dreams are made of. But Silverman’s performance is more than an attention-getting stunt, and it’s her hellish rendering of a New Jersey housewife under the influence of drugs, alcohol and mental illness that elevates director Adam Salky’s sophomore feature above the suburban-nightmare movie-of-the-week it otherwise often resembles. Even with the buzz sure to ignite around its Sundance premiere, “Smile” will prove a tough sell commercially, where more sensitive types will blanch at the film’s Olympian gauntlet of self-abuse, reckless endangerment and public humiliation.
Playing addicts of one kind or another has been a tried-and-true recipe for funnymen (and -women) seeking serious-actor street cred, from Michael Keaton in “Clean and Sober” to Jennifer Aniston in the recent “Cake” — neither of whom had to play a scene quite like the one Silverman does early on, as her Laney Brooks stumbles into her sleeping daughter’s bedroom and begins masturbating atop the child’s teddy bear. And that’s just for starters. Indeed, the Laney we meet at the start of “I Smile Back” is already significantly damaged goods, having stopped taking her prescription lithium and slipped back into a series of old, self-destructive habits: cocaine, vodka, amphetamines and torrid afternoon sex with the restaurateur husband (Thomas Sadoski) of a close family friend (Mia Barron). But because Laney is a practiced addict, she manages to conceal the evidence that things are coming undone, for a while, until her efforts become like spackling paste on volcanic rifts.
“I Smile Back,” which was adapted by Paige Dylan (wife of Jakob) and Amy Koppelman from the latter’s well-reviewed 2008 novel, suggests that Laney’s condition is at least partly hereditary and partly a reaction to the kind of anodyne, middle-class ennui that similarly tormented the characters in movies like “Bigger Than Life,” “Revolutionary Road” and “Gone Girl.” And although still a relatively young woman, Laney is beset with a sense of impending mortality and her body’s gradual decay. (In one scene, lifted from the novel’s opening chapter, she stands before a full-body mirror and presses forlornly at her sagging, softening breasts.)
But the film is ultimately less concerned with the causes than with the consequences of Laney’s behavior, for herself, her two young children, and her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), a successful insurance salesman and self-help author who initially seems like such a pompous dolt (he describes his book, hilariously titled “Hedging Your Bets Against God,” as “a Bible for the here and now”) that you wonder if he might not be the root of all that ails her.
The movie eventually falls into the familiar pattern of recovery and relapse that forms the basis of most addiction narratives, with Laney doing a brief stint in rehab, returning home happier and seemingly healthier, only to slip again. At its most compelling, it explores the character’s worsening fear that she may have passed her “bad genes” on to her own children, as her estranged father (an excellent Chris Sarandon, seen too briefly) may have done to her.
Yet, for all its considerable frankness, “I Smile Back” feels oddly restrained. Salky, who previously directed the pansexual high-school menage a trois “Dare” (a Sundance competition entry in 2009), is a prosaic visual storyteller who doesn’t bring much out of a scene that isn’t already there on the surface. The domestic sequences never explode with the messy emotionalism of John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” (an obvious model), and despite the screenplay’s best efforts at humanizing him, Charles’ Bruce remains a somewhat opaque and distant figure (not unlike the Alec Baldwin character in “Still Alice”).
What propels the film forcefully along is Silverman, who pulls us down so deeply inside Laney’s sickness that everything else seems to fade away (much as it does in the character’s own life). Though one can see occasional flashes of the actress’ sardonic standup persona in scenes where a drunken Laney castigates a fellow parent from her kids’ school or insults a dinner-party guest, this is fundamentally a performance that doesn’t solicit the audience’s pity or complicity — or even, for long stretches, anything resembling our sympathy.
But it does transmit an acute understanding, of how some people can come to feel like prisoners inside their own bodies, helpless to dispel the urges that compel them. There are echoes here of real-life cases like that of Diane Schuler, the Long Island soccer mom who killed eight people while driving under the influence in 2009, and you come away from “I Smile Back” with a better sense of how something like that might happen. It’s there in Silverman’s eyes, which flicker with an exquisite, agonized mixture of pleasure and shame as she plunges once more back into the abyss.
Print screened for review lacked final end credits.