Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Jennifer Aniston delivers the performance of her career in the uneven and familiar Cake. She brings to light a character quietly marked by tragedy and a hope for triumph, even if that end doesn’t seem in sight. Aniston’s Claire Bennett is first seen in a support group for chronic pain, surrounded by other women mourning the loss of one of their own, Nina (Anna Kendrick). As the leader of the group, Annette (Felicity Huffman), explains, Nina recently committed suicide because her pain was simply too much. Claire doesn’t seem all that sentimental, interested, or even human, but rather makes a callous comment about the nature of the suicide and then is formally asked to leave the group. She’s not particularly liked by many because she doesn’t try and doesn’t seem to care. Her housekeeper and confidant, Silvana (Adrianna Barraza), doesn’t think she’s trying hard enough to overcome her pain and self-pity, but Claire mostly doesn’t listen to her and instead opts for drinking wine and taking pain killers as a cathartic escape.
Not only is Claire an addict, but she’s also recovering from a personal tragedy. Her husband, Jason (Chris Messina), wants to collect all of his belongings from the house and doesn’t seem to love Claire like he used to. There are suggestions as to what happened to her but never a description of the events that transpired; I’ll leave out the details that are given for fear of spoiling any undisclosed plot details. Nonetheless, Claire is ravaged and in constant pain. She had pins in her legs for a year and must now learn how to walk and live comfortably without the support of those in her body. Water therapy, a permanently reclined car seat, and various aids to her pain can’t seem to alleviate the constant self-hatred and loathing she feels. She externalizes everything and makes others feel terrible, while also being haunted by Nina everywhere she steps. She meets her widow, Roy (Sam Worthington), who can’t even live with his son because the young boy can’t stand staying in the house anymore.
The film wallows in pain and starts to feel like it revels in our sadness toward these characters. Patrick Tobin’s screenplay, though, is aware of its nature and handles most of its tragedy with gentility. I was surprised by how many clichéd elements and subplots pop up that seem to still fit in this narrative; I didn’t so much have a problem with them as I found them predictable. Daniel Barnz’s direction, then, is even further graceful and elegant, not necessarily providing new insight into the narrative so much as letting Aniston occupy almost every frame. There are some hackneyed visual cues that remind us of her drug addiction and struggles with reality, which are unnecessary, but Aniston owns those scenes. She’s such a commanding force throughout the film, bringing intensity when needed but mostly playing it cool and composed. Her face says it all. She’s been a talented comedic actress for most of her career, but there’s endless potential on this new path she’s explored. Cake handles personal tragedy with occasional grace despite its familiar narrative, yet Aniston’s performance remains the biggest, most affecting takeaway.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)