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Cast as a cranky, depressed woman suffering from chronic pain, Cake represents Jennifer Aniston’s first low-budget, indie-style film since 2006’s Friends with Money, offering the star her most dramatically challenging part since either the latter movie or The Good Girl (2002).Covered in prosthetic scars and made up to look as dowdy and unglamorous as someone in cashmere sweatpants can look, Aniston submits an honest, sturdy performance. However, the film, directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland, Beastly) and written by Patrick Tobin, is less emotionally potent than it wants to be, and feels as if it might have been overmedicated by script doctoring to make it more palatable to Aniston’s fan base. That sizeable audience will drum up box-office support but it’s hardly likely to do We’re the Millers-sized business.
Set in Los Angeles, which it evokes with a resident’s sensitivity to the area’s social geography, the film opens at a support group for sufferers of chronic pain. It transpires that one regular, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has committed suicide, and facilitator Annette (Felicity Huffman) asks each of the members to share what they feel. When it’s time for Claire Simmons (Aniston) to tell an imaginary Nina what she thinks, she rips into the dead woman, condemning her decision to end her life in such a way as to cause maximum distress to her family. The others are so upset by her honesty they later politely ask her to take her pain elsewhere.
Scenes at Claire’s home gradually reveal the state of the nation for this troubled woman. Addicted to prescription painkillers, she lives alone in a large, tastefully appointment house, her ex-husband (Chris Messina) having moved out some time ago. Occasionally, she has carefully positioned, loveless sex with her gardener Arturo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).When she gives him a box of unused children’s toys she no longer needs, it’s an obvious clue that Claire once had a child who’s now dead, probably killed in the same accident that mangled her body.
Her main support, however, is Silvana (Adriana Barraza, easily the movie’s MVP), Claire’s Mexican housekeeper. Silvana maternally clucks over her employer, taking on the chin Claire’s sometimes brusque comments and ferrying her around town when needed, even as far Tijuana to pick up extra Percocets. The fact that Claire always insists on having her passenger seat fully reclined to ease her back pain marks a nicely observed detail, paid off poignantly at the end.
Nina starts making hallucinatory appearances in Claire’s dreams, urging her to kill herself too. Seeking to exorcize this demon, Claire goes to the dead woman’s house and meets Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington, speaking with his native Australian accent for a change). Like Claire, Roy is a tightly wound ball of fury, filled with rage at his dead wife for leaving him alone to raise their pre-school-age son. He and Claire strike up a non-physical relationship and something romantic looks possible, but it only takes an encounter with someone connected to the tragedy to shatter Claire’s locked-down composure.
The road map the film draws for recovery comes straight out of the atlas of trauma-drama psychotherapy, prescribing that in order to heal any devastated individual in question must have a big hysterical screaming scene, weep a lot in a jump-cut montage sequence, and hit rock bottom before turning to loved ones – in this case Barrazza’s longsuffering Silvana – for redemptive forgiveness and support. Cake follows this narrative trajectory with dogged scrupulousness, which rather drains any sense of surprise or originality from the movie, however well Aniston performs the required maneuvers.
Even more problematic is the way everyone in the film, including the protagonist, describe Claire as a “bitch,” and yet she doesn’t really do anything all that bitchy or mean. Sure, she’s a bit caustic tongued, and not above using lawyerly tricks to get what she wants (it’s mentioned that she was a brief before the accident), but that hardly makes her any kind of harridan. One can’t help wondering if earlier drafts of the script gave the character more opportunity to be venomous but the end result got watered down somewhere along the way.
Ultimately, the film is better at comedy than it is at the tragic stuff, and Aniston’s redoubtable comic timing never fails her. The back and forth between her and Barrazza has substantial fizzle and in the end the movie is more perceptive about the unique, intimate relationships domestics and employers form between them than it is about pain and grief.
DoP Rachel Morrison’s off-center, oddly-angled compositions add an edginess, enhanced by the faint handheld quiver of the camera while heightened colors are deployed sparingly to signal Claire’s breaks with reality.
Production companies: A Cinelou Films production in association with Echo Film, We’re Not Brothers Productions
Cast:Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy, Adriana Barraza, Felicity Huffman, Sam Worthington, Chris Messina, Mamie Gummer
Director: Daniel Barnz
Screenwriter: Patrick Tobin
Producer: Ben Barnz, Mark Canton, Kristin Hahn, Courtney Solomon
Executive producers: Jennifer Aniston, Shyam Madiraju
Director of photography: Rachel Morrison
Production designer: Joseph Garrity
Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
Editors: Kristina Boden, Michelle Harrison
Sales: Conquistador Entertainment
No rating, 101 minutes
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