“Cake” Movie Review

    When A-list movie stars join an indie project and choose a role where they step out of their comfort zone, people tend to notice.  Look no further than Steve Carell’s Best Actor nomination for his role as John du Pont in “Foxcatcher” where you’ll find no evidence of the funny man audiences laughed at in “40 Year Old Virgin” and “Anchorman” as he delivers perhaps the best performance of his career.  While Jennifer Aniston has enjoyed by far the most success in her post “Friends” acting career when compared to her fellow cast mates, she has limited herself to mainly to roles in mainstream comedies like “Bruce Almighty”, “Horrible Bosses”, and the forgettable “We’re the Millers”.  The roles she plays in these films are just recycled versions of her Rachel character with the only difference being some screenwriters trumping up her lines into the R-rated category in order have her come off as provocative.  As an actress, Jennifer Aniston has definitely broken that mold with her performance in director Daniel Barnz’ “Cake”, a very personal and tragic story about a woman attempting to cope with life after a terrible loss.

     We first meet Claire (Aniston) as she attends a regular support group meeting comprised of several women coping with what is described as “chronic pain”.  Though not all of these women’s stories are shared, we learn they have recently lost one of their members who has recently committed suicide, succumbing to her own pain and leaving behind a husband and young son.  Claire doesn’t take kindly to the woman’s suicide and lectures the group with  venomous comments that ultimately get her kicked out permanently by the lead therapist.  This is merely the introduction into Claire’s life as Barnz chooses to piece meal important details to the audience as the film moves on.  Visually, we see she is scarred about her face and body, which indicates she may have been in a recent accident.  For someone who appears to be well off, she appears unkept with greasy hair and is completely devoid of makeup.  She’s also in obvious physical pain and relies on pain killers on a near constant basis.  So much so that a trip to Mexico becomes necessary in order to feed her hunger to be free of pain.  But it soon becomes obvious there is more than just physical debilitation she is suffering from.

     Claire is extremely lucky she still has her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), as she functions more as a caregiver or a surrogate mother that Claire desperately needs and yet still treats as though she is a second class citizen.  Silvana drives Claire everywhere she demands to go, seemingly on a whim, and then tucks her into bed each night, showing obvious fear that she may herself go over the edge and succumb to the pain and despair of which she greatly suffers.  We learn her husband, Jason (Chris Messina), has left her but still cares enough that he sits by her bedside and ensures she falls asleep.  She wants him there for comfort and security and he seems to want to provide it, so why are they apart?  What happened between them?  Barnz may have made a crucial narrative mistake in waiting until near the end of the film’s third act to reveal important details we probably should’ve known in the first half of the story, and I wonder if these flaws may have cost Aniston an Oscar nomination.  There are times you feel as though you’re in the room with Claire, but you’ve never met her before and don’t know her back story, so you only know what you actually see and that’s not enough information to invest in the character early on.  “Cake” tends to play like a mystery when it rightly should be straight forward and cohesive.

     While we eventually find out in the end, it’s a constant head scratcher as to why Claire frequently dreams of the woman in her former therapy group who committed suicide.  The woman, Nina, who is played by Anna Kendrick during these sequences, appears at her poolside, at the hospital, and in the booth next to her at a diner.  She speaks to her about suicide and berates her for her recent decision making, but the visits don’t really make much sense until we come to understand the source of Claire’s pain.  As Claire becomes obsessed with the woman, she tracks down her former husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), and son and carries on an odd relationship with them that occupies the majority of the film’s second act.  She seems astonished with the method which Nina used to commit suicide and those around her, including Silvana, begin to suspect that is the direction Claire may be headed. 

     At the point where Barnz finally clues the audience in to what has caused Claire to spiral downward, the film transitions sharply from a story about a woman who seems to be unwilling to help herself and allow those around her to help her, to one that pulls the heart strings significantly and turns Claire into a sympathetic character that anyone will be able to relate to.  Perhaps “Cake” is simply an exercise in teaching people that not all is not as it seems when you meet with and interact with someone.  They may be doing their best to conceal something tragic in their life, but since you are unaware of that, the person comes off as cold and distant and you end up wrongly judging them on that behavior instead of digging deeper.  Jennifer Aniston does an exceptional job of playing this character with a very rude and callous defense mechanism, all the while concealing from the world and those around her something no one could deal with rationally.  The performance is so good, it alone is worth the price of admission.  GRADE: B