Cake August 28, 2015
“Tell me a story where everything works out for the evil witch,” the sardonic, bedridden Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston) sighs to her soon-to-be ex-husband (Chris Messina). A sufferer of chronic pain, she has descended into a pit of pill popping and cantankerousness, aware that everyone in her life more than likely calls her a bitch behind her back while hardly pretending to be there for her when confronted by her misery.
But Claire doesn’t much care. Some time back, she, along with her young son, were involved in a gruesome car accident, one that left him dead and her with a torturous aching so severe that nothing, nothing, can stop its debilitating powers. A lawyer in her brighter days, she has enough money to sit around all day and feast on bottomless white wine and Oxycontin — perfect for a woman always on the cusp of being a serious hazard to herself.
As the film opens, we find her attending a chronic pain support group. There, the patrons discuss the recent suicide of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a well-liked young woman who left behind a devoted husband (Sam Worthington) and son. The head of the group, the flighty Annette (Felicity Huffman), makes the members go through a contrived game of imaginary forgiveness; Claire, being the poor acidic soul she is, decides to offend nearly everyone in the room by asking how Nina did it — she’s not so much suicidal as she is morbidly curious (though the idea of ending her perpetual suffering sounds grander and grander each day).
So Cake spends the rest of its length studying the relationships between Claire and her maid, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), Claire and Claire’s hallucination of Nina’s ghost, Claire and Nina’s husband, Claire and the world, Claire and Claire. It’s a merry-go-round of self-reflection and acerbic emotion, turning round and round but never really going anywhere. Indeed, Cake is the kind of decent film centered around a groundbreaking performance, doing nothing except servicing its star.
It doesn’t have much of a plot, preferring to follow Claire around as she throws insults about, deadpans her way through the mundanities of life, and faces the facts regarding her ever-manifesting grief. In most other hands, such character studying would be interesting: but director Daniel Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin hardly concoct a world worthy of their protagonist. She’s a barrel of bleak laughs waiting for her demise — a recipe for irresistible black dramedy of the Robert Altman mindset — but Barnz and Tobin favor an everything-will-be-all-right-in-the-end sentimentality that assures that frames will be deadened by repeating motifs like wind-chimes blowing in the warm summer breeze, water taking away the ungodliness of the world, and the sight of Claire lying down in the passenger seat of her pimped-out car, basking in her depression (you won’t believe the “happy” ending — or you might, depending on how cynical you are).
Without a doubt, Aniston is the glue that holds Cake together, and there isn’t a single part of me that doesn’t believe she was robbed when Oscar nominations were announced and she wasn’t among the performers called out. A comedienne of unusual talent, Cake sees her trading her usual quirks for sneakily funny caustic bitterness — but the laughs she manages to deliver are not sunny pieces of comedic timing but accidental moments of humorousness lined with pain that feels real. Her greasy hair, slight weight gain, and numerous bodily scars don’t seem like extra hints of Oscar baiting: they feel like well-earned fragments of her character, and Aniston is so good it becomes impossible to do anything besides saunter in the wake of her risk-taking shadow. She is magnificent. And it’s a shame Cake isn’t as magnificent as she is.
In her scenes with Barraza (and there are many), we catch glimpses of the black comedy that could have been, an Odd Couple that travels down to Mexico to smuggle back pills and sometimes picks up teen runaways for the sole purpose of cake cravings. But, alas, Cake feels aimless — the side plot involving Kendrick and Worthington is entertaining but pointless, and the inclusion of Huffman leads to nowhere. There isn’t necessarily anything bad about Cake: it’s just so thoroughly dependent on its excellent leading lady that it doesn’t do much besides dawdle as an actual film. C+