- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

That comedienne Sarah Silverman has a naughty mouth is not news. However, the 44-year-old actress and comic has turned her talents for shock and gasps into a performance of sheer transcendence in the new film “I Smile Back,” which opens in the District Friday.

Even more surprisingly, despite the fact the movie has several moments of uncomfortable laughter, it is far from a comedy.

Known primarily for her off-color humor, in “I Smile Back” Miss Silverman stars as Laney Brooks, a New York-area wife and mother dealing with manic-depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. Her patient husband Bruce (Josh Charles) stands by her amid mental illness and her various falls off the wagon.

“I like talking about taboos in my stand-up, and I feel like this is along the same lines as that,” Miss Silverman told The Washington Times. “I never really have gotten an opportunity to do something so serious and dark, and it was exciting for me.”

In the opening moments of the film, Laney sits morosely upon the toilet in the family home, staring into space while snorting lines of coke and sadly regarding her figure in the bathroom mirror as Bruce plays basketball with their son just outside the window. As the film progresses, Laney, off her meds, draws inward and shuts out her family and the outside world.

“In my last [comedy] special I talked about how people can hate themselves or be self-conscious and self-deprecating, and [others] mistake that for modesty, and it’s not,” Miss Silverman said of Laney’s introversion. “It’s self-obsession; there’s not room for anybody else.

“They say that if you live in the past, it’s depression; if you live in the future, it’s anxiety, and that’s why we’re supposed to be present and in the moment. And [Laney] exists in that terror of what if I mess up my kids? What if I pass on my genes? And there’s no room for anything else; it has [become] a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Miss Silverman related that her own mother suffered from depression, and the actress has herself battled the condition for over two decades. She said that, too often, sufferers of mental illness skip their medication to more fully experience the emotional highs and lows of life rather than live along the more even-keeled continuum that antidepressants offer. Miss Silverman further believes people need talk therapy in addition to pharmaceutical assistance.

“Since 1994 I’ve been on a very low dose of Zoloft that has been a real saving grace for me … and I’m very grateful for the talk therapy that I’ve had,” she said. “That has allowed me to live my life freely without complete … emotional paralysis.”

Miss Silverman first realized at the age of 3 that she could turn a roomful of people into a laughing audience. Her father, she related, taught her dirty words at a young age — her public utterances of which would typically elicit uncomfortable laughter from adults.

“I became addicted to that feeling,” she said of the reinforcement the chuckles of others provided.

Like many comedians, Miss Silverman said she applied the shield of laughter as a way to deal with the strictures and pitfalls of her own childhood — a method to tangle with the darkness and the demons.

“The reason comedians become funny, I think, is just that: a survival skill of childhood,” she said, adding the exemplar of “the fat kid making the fat joke before anyone else can.”

“It’s self-protection,” she said, which comes across in her portrayal of Laney, who more often than not drops inappropriate comments at the most inopportune of moments to subvert her urges to drink and do drugs. “For most of us, the survival skills we learn as kids … might get in the way of our adult life, and you have to kind of learn to unlearn those things. But with comedy it’s a fine line, you know.”

Miss Silverman’s stand-up often borders on the vulgar, but it is that very level of discomforting an audience that has made her so successful. In “I Smile Back” she effectively turns that notion on its head, subverting her public persona while bringing out the underlying pain that fuels Laney’s destructive escapades.

Indeed, Miss Silverman has often been asked to apologize for many of her saucier comedy bits, which ride the line between joking ridicule and purposeful offense that was also a hallmark of such greats as George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

“It isn’t [the public’s] place to decide or dictate the kind of stuff I put out — it’s not their business,” she said of the reaction to her spoken comedy. “I can’t control how people receive it.

“That’s what art is. And I learned early on that the worst thing you can do is to defend or explain a joke,” she said of her craft. “You just have to accept that it’s not going to be for everyone. If you’re sorry, then you should say you’re sorry.”

Much like her comedy, “I Smile Back” will certainly not be for “everyone.” In addition to its frank dealings with mental illness and drug dependency, the film also traffics in Laney openly using profanity to insult the parents of other children at her kids’ school, adultery, situations of dangerous — and graphic — sexual encounters as well as other acts that are not describable here.

“I think it’s the kind of movie where how people feel about it, and how they feel about this character, depends entirely on the prism of their own experience,” Miss Silverman said. “And I love that about art in general.”

A key scene in “I Smile Back” has Laney reconnecting with the father she has not seen in decades. As portrayed by Chris Sarandon, Roger is neither villain nor saint, simply an older man who has made some bad decisions.

“I think that almost the scariest part is that he’s not a monster, he’s a human being,” Miss Silverman said of her scenes with Mr. Sarandon as her long-absent parent. “We all have that realization that our parents are people. But then there’s that realization, if you are so lucky, that our parents are also trying to survive their [own] childhood.”

Miss Silverman likens the experience of beholding “I Smile Back” to a person who looks at a piece of artwork time and time again, but always seeing something new in the work — and within themselves.

“Someone can go look at the same painting every single day of their life, and they say why is that person looking at the same painting,” she said. “It’s because they’re changing every day. I love art and I love the concept of it — it’s interesting to me.”

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