There are many movies in this world, and Parker Finn’s Smile is inarguably one of them.
At an unforgivable 112 minutes, this horror film asks, “What if It Follows, but stupid?” and, “What if the general realism of Malignant, but boring?” The result is an almost hypnotically terrible movie that’s such a train-wreck the dull and the bizarre that it exists alongside Schrodinger’s cat, in some limbo between being recommended for bad movie viewing and being strenuously warned against. This is not the last time a cat will be mentioned in this review.
Smile stars Sosie Bacon as Dr. Rose Cotter, an affectless piece of soggy cardboard masquerading as a psychiatrist. Or possibly a psychologist. Or a therapist. The movie honestly can’t decide. One day, Rose sees a patient who claims that she’s being stalked by an entity no one else can see, who appears to her in the form of different people but always wearing the same creepy ear-to-ear smile. The patient then starts panicking and flings herself back against the wall, ostensibly fighting thin air. Rose, belatedly realizing that she’s made the mistake of having this talk in a cavernous space akin to an airport hangar, apparently decides that the wall-mounted phone is too far away to be a valid option. She stands there and watches as the patient smashes a vase–psychiatric wards are, of course, famous for being full of easily weaponizable objects–and, unnerving smile in place, cuts her own throat.
Rose’s own psychiatrist (Robin Weigert, presumably appearing under threat of blackmail), upon hearing that Rose was the up-close-and-personal witness to a young girl’s sudden and brutal suicide, advances the theory that Rose is really upset about this because of her own mother’s suicide. Obviously, she would otherwise be able to shrug off this case of throat-cutting! She apparently thinks so too, because she treats it like “I had a bad day at work today,” as though her employment history were riddled with self-exsanguinations … although honestly, given her general level of competence, it might be.
She proceeds, that same night, to out to dinner with her terrible, self-centered boyfriend; terrible, self-centered sister; and terrible, self-centered brother-in-law, who all appear to have ordered the exact same meal. Her sister and brother-in-law proceed to attack her for sometimes needing to work weekends; working with the mentally ill, described in various unflattering terms; forgetting that she’s supposed to be attending her nephew’s birthday party this weekend; and not having agreed to sell their dead mother’s house. Thank God she decided not to skip this meal with its enormous breadbasket of exposition and foreshadowing!
Meanwhile, Rose is now being stalked by the smiling, shapeshifting figure. Its powers are determined by the screenwriter’s halfhearted game of darts. Sometimes it seems to possess someone she’s already interacting with. Sometimes it makes her hallucinate an interaction. Sometimes it makes her hallucinate an entire section of the movie. Sometimes it apparently makes her kill her own cat, gift-wrap its corpse, and bring it to her nephew’s birthday party. Gift cat is not an oven cat. Gift cat is the opposite of an oven cat. You look at gift cat, and you don’t wonder how the movie’s going to top this madness, you wonder how the hell there’s a dead, gift-wrapped cat corpse dangling from a shocked child’s hand and you feel only the signature emotion of Smile: convulsive laughter filtered through the lens of “meh.”
Almost every choice made in or on behalf of this movie is inexplicable. Why would Rose’s supervisor (a sadly underutilized Kal Penn) wait a couple days post-suicide before placing her on administrative leave? Why could the screenwriter not be bothered to research the actual effects and uses of the drugs it mentions or the actual meaning of the hospital codes its characters are yelling? Why does Rose’s homicide cop react to fairly ordinary crime scene photos like he’s me looking at a picture of a frilled shark? Why do we keep doing long, slow zooms in on things that never turn out to be relevant? Who decided that Rose’s terrible new boyfriend should be Black and her actual love interest should be a mopey white cop? Isn’t this bit of legal/penal procedure total bullshit? Why does the one smart bit of plotting in this movie actually only exist as a temporary misunderstanding you could have between two of the scenes in the last act? Why are all these rooms so fucking big? Is that Judy Reyes from Scrubs?*
There’s also riveting, rat-a-tat dialogue like:
“He saw someone kill herself.”
“Are you saying he saw someone commit suicide?”
“It’s hereditary, right? Mental illness! I looked it up!”
In the midst of all of this, however, the film rudely manages to pull off both a mildly affecting bit of back-story and, more importantly, some genuinely creepy imagery and a chilling, perfectly executed scare involving a home security system. The last scene is especially rude. You can lie awake in the dark thinking about it, being annoyed that it’s still providing a certain amount of shivery gooseflesh.
On the whole, however, this is just a dud that doesn’t have enough color or energy to justify how awful it is. Never mind my earlier analogy: I have opened the gift-wrapped box for you, and the cat puppet is indeed dead.
* Yes. Like Penn and Weigert, she deserves better. We all deserve better.
Smile is streaming on Paramount Plus.