What is it that makes comedians so desperate to be taken seriously? From Chaplin up through Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, the urge to put on the mask of tragedy has led gifted comic talents to hop on the Downer Express; the resulting projects can sometimes work ("Louie," for one) but just as often cut against the grain of what the performer actually does very well.
That said, Sarah Silverman is far and away the best part of "I Smile Back," a strained entry in the Mad Housewife genre that is sneaking into the outskirts of town; it opens Friday at Hollywood Hits in Danvers and is also available on VOD. Adapted from Amy Koppelman's novel by Koppelman and Paige Dylan (wife of musician Jakob Dylan), the movie spends its opening third standing back in horror as Silverman's Laney Brooks, a Long Island minivan mom, takes her secret life of drug snorting and bad-idea sex much too far.
Her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles of "The Good Wife"), is a cheerful insurance salesman who only slowly realizes Laney is back off her depression meds. Daughter Janey (Shayne Coleman) is too young to realize her mother is derailing, but 10-year-old Eli (Skylar Gaertner, in a moving, understated performance) notices and it's setting off his own anxious tics. "He has my genes," Laney mourns, and as the movie unfurls and we learn more about her own childhood, we get director Adam Salky's overly reductive point: Damage is a gift we pass from generation to generation.
"I Smile Back" settles into overly familiar beats of addiction and recovery and backsliding; it's only a question of whether it'll end with the heroine on the upswing or the down. Those opening scenes, though, are something to see, so fiercely does Silverman's Laney burn with rage against her placid little life. At its best, the movie suggests the murderous rebellion roiling beneath the surface of the average soccer mom — the one standing next to you in line at Trader Joe's.
Silverman's stand-up comedy has always mined laughter out of contrast, with her delicate features and tiny voice used to launch the filthiest jokes imaginable. Her act is extremely (and superbly) controlled, and in "I Smile Back" that control is turned inward to portray Laney's failing attempts to maintain her double life of Good Mom and Bad Girl. Not once does Silverman wink or tip her hand; not once does she play the part "big," so we'll applaud what she's up to. It's a remarkable and rigorous performance — one that acknowledges the oceans of sadness hidden inside the Laneys of the world and maybe the people who make us laugh as well.
I SMILE BACK
Directed by Adam Salky. Written by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman, based on a novel by Koppelman. Starring Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles. At Danvers and on VOD. 85 minutes. R (strong sexual content, substance abuse/disturbing behavior, language)