Review: ‘Smile’ Barely Earns More Than A Shrug

Smile (2022)

Temple Hill and Paramount
Players/rated R/115 minutes

Written and directed by Parker Finn

Starring Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn and Rob Morgan

Cinematography by Charlie Sarroff

Edited by Elliot Greenberg

Music by Cristobal Tapia de Veer

Opening theatrically from Paramount on September 29

Opening theatrically tomorrow night courtesy of Paramount, Parker Finn’s Smile often plays as a skewed subtext-made-text riff on the last few years of ‘It’s all about trauma!’ horror movies. It is about a young woman seemingly haunted by an evil force that thrives explicitly on trauma, with the plot quickly pivoting back to her childhood horrors. The Sosie Bacon-starring chiller is more concerned with popcorn-flying chills than think piece-friendly discourse. At its best, it occasionally satisfies as a jump-scare-driven potboiler that rarely feels the need to pull out the yellow highlighter. However, it’s structured in such a way to make much of the present-tense menace null-and-void while relying far too often on dream sequences and fake-outs.

Smile feels like a riff on so many recent horror films that it should almost come with a works-cited page. However, better to rip off than remake. The 13-minute pre-title sequence is the picture at its best, swiftly introducing us to a sympathetic psychologist doing the lord’s (underpaid and over-extended) work at a local emergency psych center. There’s a gritty and off-hand realism to the hospital interactions, which creates tension and relative suspense when Dr. Rose Cutter meets up with a young Ph.D. student (Sara Kapner) seemingly suffering from a psychotic break. Slight spoiler, but the young woman rants about seeing scary visions of people smiling and immediately takes her own life. This, of course, sets the core plot in motion.

Whether our heroine is doomed before the title card, I won’t say. The repercussions begin almost at once, as Cutter starts seeing skewed visions of people smiling in the least friendly fashion imaginable (think when somebody dies by ‘Joker Venom’ in a Batman comic book). It’s mostly a waiting game to see if the good doctor can avoid her Ring/Drag Me to Hell-ish fate, while details about the circumstances offer up some over-the-top crime scene photos and just a little bit of detective work. While the film is filled with R-rated imagery and some genuinely compelling horror effects, there is a certain lack of urgency as we know that nothing she sees or encounters is anything more than a bluff for our benefit.

This might be less of an issue in a tight 90-minute thriller, but Smile runs on for 115 minutes. it feels even longer because (vague spoilers) Cutter hits emotional and psychological rock bottom, alienating her loved ones and destroying her professional reputation by the (ghoulishly funny and genuinely horrific) act one finale. In the film’s favor, it has visual imagination to spare, at least looking as polished and respectable as we expected from lower-budget theatrical horror movies in the early 2000s. Finn is no Gore Verbinski, but then the first Ring had a $48 million budget and played as one of the most ‘epic’ horror movies since, I dunno, Tobe Hopper’s Lifeforce. Moreover, cheap or not, several of the scares do the job.

I also appreciated the slew of overqualified actors (Kal Penn, Judy Reyes, Rob Morgan, etc.) giving A-level performances in primarily plot-driven roles. Jessie T. Usher struggles to make an impression as the less-than-sympathetic fiancée. Still, Kyle Gallner is shockingly funny (in a down-to-Earth fashion) as a cop who gets pulled in due to a past relationship with Cutter. He’s mostly there to offer up exposition, but it’s a lived-in, authentically specific performance. Sosie Bacon is as good as she needs to be, even if she is merely tasked with being anxious and on the verge of meltdown for the entire movie. Smile frankly offers little ‘new’ to the sub-genre, with too many of the film’s biggest jolts being fake-outs or ‘just a cat’-type cons.

Ambition, filmmaking skill and strong casting instincts notwithstanding, Smile feels like a lesser imitation of several semi-recent classics of the genre. It starts so close to the ground and escalates so quickly that it becomes monotonous as we wait for what is or isn’t in store. There are strong production values, including disturbing R-rated visuals beyond just comically grotesque crime scene photos. The film wins points for not holding our hands in terms of themes and even exposition. It trusts us to make connections and correctly infer relationships. Smile isn’t a contemporary classic, nor is it likely to inspire buzz on par with Barbarian or Malignant. But it’s a modestly successful scare machine, even if it doesn’t offer much more beyond opportunities to spill your popcorn.

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