If there’s any truth behind the old wives’ tale that it takes fewer muscles to smile than it does to frown, Anton Lanshakov’s amusing short The Smile Man shows that smiling all the time can still be a pretty exhausting practice.
Take Willem Dafoe, the protagonist of The Smile Man and his physical inability to frown. Ever. Best known for his role as Green Goblin in Spider-Man and Sgt. Elias in Platoon, Dafoe plays the role of a man who gets into a near-fatal car accident and, as a result, develops a condition that freezes his face into place. Although this may come across as an awfully somber premise given that the film is labeled as a comedy, everything clicks the moment Dafoe’s face is revealed. His newly-permanent smile is not just your average smile; it is a maniacal, shit-eating, and downright hysterical one.
Let me just take a moment here to lay out how important this seemingly minor detail really is. Willem Dafoe contorts his face in a way that I, before watching The Smile Man, would have ever believed was humanly possible. He frankly looks like what an incompetent species of extra-dimensional beings would design in the desperate hopes of trying to infiltrate the ranks of humans with. Yes- a histrionic and maybe even mean to say about a man as talented as Dafoe but this is a compliment to him, I swear. The fact that he’s able to deliver his lines as convincingly as he does while maintaining that smile so unflinchingly throughout is hands down incredible. There’s even a scene in where he slaps himself a few times (not gentle slaps either), and nearly nothing about his face changes. The Smile Man would lose much of its bountiful charm without Dafoe; I don’t think there’s anyone who could play the part as good as he does here.
It would be a disservice, however, to not also credit Lanshakov for how well The Smile Man plays out. I really do love how this film was written, and for a number of reasons. Aside from it getting me to smile pretty hard myself (the scene with Dafoe in the taxi where the driver is convinced he’s on a prank TV show is a gut-buster), the film has a remarkably clear identity. Lanshakov gets precisely what he wants to get across here, and doesn’t leave any loose ends or unnecessary moments hanging about to distract us. He resists the temptation to take the ingenious concept behind The Smile Man, a man who can’t ever not smile- and stretch it any further than what’s probably necessary. Think about it: there are entire feature-length movies dedicated to ideas as simple and clever as this (Liar Liar and Yes Man are two I can point to off the top of my head). I’d imagine it must be tough as a writer/director to have such a wonderfully flexible idea as this and not want to take it in a million different directions. All Dafoe is trying to do during the film is give a certain lady her purse back, and what we see is his humorous journey en route. There isn’t much else really, but it is all executed in a way that feels complete and wholesomely satisfying.
So if you’re looking for a quick, ten-minute distraction from the mundane trials life can sometimes put you through, try out The Smile Man. It’s fun, not too serious, and will no doubt get you grinning for a variety of reasons. There’s nothing better than a genuine smile that’s not forced, and if it takes Willem Dafoe’s wildly twisted face to give you a few- all the more power to you.