by Philip Price
“Cake” wants to be a lot more than it is, but it is nothing short of well-intentioned with something resembling ambition. What is even more fascinating about a film such as this is the alternate universe where Jennifer Aniston became a strictly dramatic actress and this film is given more weight than it’s currently receiving. Given Aniston is largely known for her comedic work and as something of a lesser, more archetypal actress it is when she does something pointedly dramatic it’s automatically assumed it’s nothing more than an Oscar bid. This could be taken in a number of ways given Aniston not only stars as the face on the poster here, but executive produced the effort and so one might cynically see it as a power play to cast herself in a movie she wouldn’t normally be picked for putting herself in better standing as a “real” actress. The thing is, Aniston has already proved she’s a real actress if not with 2002’s “The Good Girl,” but with her inherent ability to relate to almost anyone in the audience. Aniston, especially in her comedies, has always had the uncanny ability to serve as the common audience members way into the world of whatever movie she is starring in with the added bonus of being what every female viewer would like to envision themselves as physically and an ideal image of what every male viewer imagines himself being with. Aniston is one of us, or at least she is able to convey that sense of community, and while many may not consider her exceptionally talented it’s difficult to find anyone who doesn’t necessarily like her. While one may not consider that talent, it certainly takes a lot of skill. In “Cake,” Aniston uses this skill of relatability to gain access to the psychology of a lost cause. Aniston’s character, Claire Bennett, is a mysterious figure to us, frustrated and consistently irritated by the people around her. We don’t know why, but this is who we go on a journey with and in the end it’s not so much about Aniston’s performance as it is the disappointing fact she’s still looking for the right vehicle with which she might spread her wings.
Written by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz the film follows Aniston’s Claire as she becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick). As she uncovers the details of Nina’s suicide and develops a poignant relationship with Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington), she also grapples with her own personal tragedy. We meet Claire in the aforementioned support group as the counselor (Felecity Huffman) puts herself in the position of Nina so that the members of her group may express how they feel to the recently deceased. It is a fair enough set-up that allows the introduction of Claire to be quite blunt with the intent of taking the audience aback. That is all well and good, but the intent is so transparent that it causes more of a groan than that of the hook it desperately wants to be. From here we continue to see just how far the bitchiness of Claire goes as she is dismissed from the support group and lives at home by herself except for her in-home caretaker Silvana (Adriana Barraza). Even Silvana, who seems to be her only friend, is emotionally abused by the cold and distant Claire who finds something wrong in every choice she makes including the route she takes while driving. Claire is addicted to pain pills, but why and as a result of what we don’t know. She moves with the slow caution of fearing every step and is quick to use her stilted posture as an excuse to do anything more than sit around and seemingly feel sorry for herself. The death of Nina sparks something in Claire though, something she has been unable to feel in an indeterminable amount of time and she can’t help but follow the bread crumbs. Tobin, who has only written one other film from 1996 guides his clearly defined lead character through a perfectly obvious set of circumstances that allow us to better know her motivations, but while the performance is determined it is unable to flourish in such a calculated environment.
In short, it is the performances that save the day here. They are the one thing you will take away from the film in seeing past the facade of it wanting to be a hip, bleak comedy that takes everything at face value and hopes it’s observational humor and “who cares” attitude will put it in favor with the cynical, narcissist crowds. Instead, the possible tag line of a woman suffering from chronic pain who becomes a real pain is something to be attached to a broad comedy rather than a determined drama that is so self-consciously dark it ends up hardly carrying any real weight. The scenes I enjoyed most were those featuring Claire and the ghost of Nina converse in Claire’s hallucinations that allow for the audience to see both the need for Claire to seek out more details of the real Nina’s life while also allowing us a glimpse into the psyche of Claire. It is a bit of a disturbing gimmick, but is the only genuine dark comedy of the piece that resonates without feeling like it’s trying too hard and most of that is due to the ease of the camaraderie between Aniston and Kendrick. Other highlights include the continually evolving relationship between Claire and Silvana that at first seems unbearable in its conventional nature, but while the transformation is expected and comes in the ways that are most obvious we appreciate the sincerity of it due in large part to the portrait that Barraza paints of this struggling woman. Silvana, no matter the hardships of her life, continues to pray for the privileged and short-tempered Claire. Silvana is constantly of the mindset where she is trying to put herself in others shoes and treat them as she imagines she would like to be treated under such circumstances while hardly thinking of herself. It is a role of real care, of being truly humble and Barraza knocks it out of the park while never crossing the line of overshadowing Aniston’s strong lead performance despite the fact Silvana is much easier to like and become interested in. Other cast members include the likes of Chris Messina, William H. Macy, Lucy Punch and Britt Robertson who all show up for one scene or less and add little to nothing except for reinforcing the calculated nature of the story.
While “Cake” is by no means a bad movie, it certainly isn’t something to write home about and neither is Aniston’s performance. They’re both perfectly fine, with nothing to take exception with. Despite her lack of make-up and consciously de-glammed appearance this still resembles the Aniston we think we know. While her character’s in a decidedly worse mood than most, the actor is still unable to shed that persona she has so heftily built on her appearance. In taking away the glamor she might have hoped to shed that image instead of simply making it obvious she wanted awards attention, but it is difficult to see Aniston as anything other than the personality we imagine her as in our minds. This is no fault of hers (she visited our living rooms for a decade on a weekly basis), but it proves it’s going to take more than removing her make-up and playing a bit against type to distance herself from that persona. I believe she is a talented enough actor to make this transition, but “Cake” is not the project to do that for her. While I appreciate the film for at least attempting to explore some complicated emotions and the ease of conversation versus the actuality of a situation it phones its main ideas and revelations in so early that I found it hard to take anything substantial away from the feature. I haven’t seen director Barnz’s first two features though I did catch his 2012 film, “Won’t Back Down,” that was also a rather conventional yet inspiring story elevated by the quality of the performances. In his latest, Barnz depicts his character study of Claire as a mystery for us to piece together while those around her already know everything going on in her life and why she is the way she is. There is no development for the people around Claire, suffering from her self-pity, but more the arc is for the audience to figure out what is actually going on with this woman. This isn’t so much a complaint as an inquiry as to why Barnz then found it necessary to make his third act one that felt redeeming to this central character when the overall point of the film was to explore the psychology of this lost cause and her need to seek out someone who was more desperate then her. Maybe had it stuck with this darker road (as it likes to claim it does) it would have also carried the weight it seems to think it does.