‘I Smile Back’: Why Did Sarah Silverman Need a Serious Drama to Become a “Serious Actor”?

PARK CITY, UTAH: Since its premiere Sunday night, one of the biggest stories of the Sundance Film Festival has been Sarah Silverman’s revelatory performance in the addiction drama I Smile Back. Indiewire called her “completely riveting.” Variety insisted, “rarely has a performer striven so concertedly to shed any trace of his/her comedy roots.” And Hollywood Reporter wrote of her “gutsy performance” “annihilating almost every trace of her comedy persona.” On the ground, the skill of her turn has generated nothing less than surprise — she’s so good, and so dramatic! But it should no longer shock anyone that a comic actor is also skilled at drama, not just because there’s such precedence for it, but because comic actors are too often regarded simply as second-class thespians.

I Smile Back is an addiction drama, which is a fairly standard vehicle for the comic actor who’d like to be taken seriously; Michael Keaton took his first stab at drama in the (excellent) 1988 film Clean and Sober, Ben Stiller followed up There’s Something About Mary with Permanent Midnight, and Sandra Bullock attempted to prove she was more than sunny Sandy in the seriocomic drama 28 Days. In fact, this isn’t even Silverman’s first time at that rodeo — she played a recovering alcoholic (convincingly) in Sarah Polley’s excellent 2011 drama Take This Waltz.

Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles in "I Smile Back"

Here, she plays Laney, a suburban wife and mother whom we meet in mid-spiral. She sends her husband (Josh Charles, excellent) off to work, packs the lunches and drops the two kids off at school, and then meets her friend’s husband (The Newroom’s Thomas Sadoski) at a motel for day drugs and illicit sex. At dinner, she downs a couple of extra glasses of wine; after bed, she slips into the kitchen to retrieve a hidden bottle of vodka. After a particularly eventful night that includes drunk-dialing another parent and masturbating with her daughter’s teddy bear (don’t ask), she finally checks in to rehab.

She resists, but then, of course, she recovers, though we’ve seen enough of these movies to know it’ll only take for so long. I suspect this is one reason why rehab stories are so popular with dramatists: they’re full of conflict, while allowing countless climaxes and regressions, victories and defeats. And indeed, I Smile Back could very well be just another addiction drama, were it not for the power and force of Silverman’s performance, which she plays with such raw openness that she transcends the material.

You buy her in the role immediately; there’s a vacancy in her eyes during those early scenes, but she’s a savvy enough actor to go beyond the vacancy and hint at the pain she’s smothering with it. When she starts getting antsy, her anxiety is infectious, and there are a couple of moments — the drive away after a high-voltage visit with her estranged father, a strained reunion with her former lover — where she conveys so much with just a slip of the mask on her face that your heart breaks. She understands this character through and through, from the carelessness of her self-destructiveness to the allure of her “fun drunk” persona, which she slips into like a comfy old robe. These are private, difficult moments, and director Adam Salky puts his camera up close, right there, so you don’t miss any of it.

Sarah Silverman in "I Smile Back"

It’s a remarkable piece of acting — but make no mistake, it’s also Capital-A Acting, showy, look-at-me-and-how-against-type-I’m-playing acting, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to see I Smile Back’s release held until fall award season. This is, it seems, a fairly natural progression for Silverman; she’s been heading in this direction already, what with the aforementioned Take This Waltz and her appearances on Masters of Sex this season, concentrating more on acting than stand-up. But there’s also no reason to place higher value on those performances than, say, her turn in Jeff Garlin’s I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, or even the high-wire act that was her performance as “Sarah Silverman” on The Sarah Silverman Program.

And sadly, this is par for the course. Robin Williams won his Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but that wasn’t necessarily a better performance than The Birdcage — just a more serious one. Ditto Bill Murray, who had to get melancholy to get the recognition he should’ve received for, say, Groundhog Day. What Rose Byrne did in Neighbors last year was as tricky as anything any of the Best Actress nominees tried. And so on and so on.

The praise that has greeted Silverman’s turn in I Smile Back is deserved; it’s a monster of a performance, and worthy of attention. But it also seems like a calculated career move — one that’s less a critique of the actor executing it than of an industry that too frequently confuses serious acting with acting serious.

I Smile Back screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.