Aniston shows she's got chops, but Cake is a movie starving for more.
When a movie about chronic pain so embodies its subject matter that it becomes a pain in the ass to watch itself, it’s got to offer something more to prove its artistic worth; otherwise, it’s just a misery simulator. The only “something more” Cake offers is a tedious mystery thread. We follow Claire (Jennifer Aniston), a divorced lawyer with a scarred-up body and face who we watch drink, pop pills (as she drinks), take naps (after she drinks), treat people like shit, moan a lot, and saunter around her expensive L.A. home like a zombie. By gathering clues we discover how she got her scars, why she suffers from such debilitating pain, why she’s such a bitch, and how in the hell her friends can tolerate her self-involved bullshit. Piecing together the tragic history behind Claire’s scars is a chore; Memento this is not.
The most likely reason you’ve heard about Cake is because Aniston’s performance garnered her a Golden Globes nomination and some peppered critical praise. There’s been a fascination with watching our prettiest actors looking as unflattering as possible (i.e. like real people–gasp!) that’s been growing steadily for the past couple of decades, and the inclination may be to lump Aniston in with the likes of other “go ugly” alumni like Charlize Theron (Monster), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), and Nicole Kidman (The Hours). But I have no interest in penalizing her for this correlation, nor do I find the juxtaposition of real-life starlets stripped of their glamour illuminative or poignant. Bottom line: Aniston’s performance is really, really good. It’s lived-in, believable, unadorned, and at times moving. The effort is there, but what ultimately stifles her is the sleepy, flat-lined script that perpetually spins its wheels.
At first Claire seems like a relatable protag, even a funny one. In the middle of a chronic pain support group (she looks in agony just sitting there) she incisively undresses the group’s be-one-with-your-emotions phoniness when asked about Nina (Anna Kendrick), one of the group’s members who killed herself by jumping off a freeway overpass. She talks to Nina’s ghost sometimes, which through eye-rolling contrivance leads her to Roy (Sam Worthington), her dead Nina’s husband. Unlike her studly gardener who she bangs on occasion, Claire finds a sentimental commonality with Roy.
But the true life raft keeping the emotionally shipwrecked Claire from drowning (she literally tries to drown herself) is her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza, very strong), who’s treated and paid less than fairly for all she does (though Claire’s loaded enough to petulantly throw money at her whenever she owes an apology). There are other people orbiting Claire’s black hole of depression, including her ex-husband (Chris Messina), her physical therapy coach (Mamie Gummer), and her support group leader (Felicity Huffman, who shares with Aniston the film’s funniest scene, involving a jumbo-sized bottle of Costco vodka), but none of them do much more than suffer as they listen to her imperious bullshit.
Aniston and the makeup team do their best to wipe away any memories you have of her as the desirable girl-with-the-hair Rachel on Friends, covering her with those scars and making her hair look as bland and stringy as a Triscuit. Her resting face looks like she puked two minutes ago. You can tell she approached the role with no ego. The most striking facet of her performance is her body movement; watching her wince and groan as she shuffles from one room to the next looks convincingly painful, and even evokes a bit of sympathy for the otherwise icy Claire.
Director Daniel Barnz finds myriad ways to show Claire horizontal: she sleeps a lot, beds the gardener, sleeps with Roy (just sleeps), lays flat in the passenger seat whenever she’s driven, floats belly-up in the pool, passes out in front of the toilet after overdosing on pills…and the list goes on. This is Barnz’ main visual motif, and he’s so obsessed with it that it feels kind of insulting to our intelligence. (Hell, even the opening title has the “A” in CAKE laid sideways.) This is all meant to bolster the impact of the film’s final shot, in which (spoiler alert) Claire sits up straight (WHOA). The strategy backfires, as the moment is so telegraphed you can’t help but cringe at how obtuse it is.
There’s barely a trace of plot to keep things moving, and it seems Barnz is banking on the “mystery of the scars” to propel the film. Screenwriter Patrick Tobin carefully places his little nuggets of information about Claire’s past intermittently and gives us just enough to figure it out on our own. The reason the process isn’t compelling is because it’s a bridge to nowhere; Cake is monotonous, rudderless, and doesn’t make any real statements about depression, suicide, or the act of grieving. It’s a film starving for something more, and while Aniston makes good use of it as a platform to show she’s got chops, it’s not the career-defining film she and many others hoped it would be.