2014 - 102 minutes
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Written by: Patrick Tobin
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Felicity Huffman
Cake has a couple of layers that don’t mix. There are some hearty morsels in there that briefly deal with intense physical and emotional pain, but they’re enveloped by a consistent movie of the week tone that makes the struggle feel slight. Jennifer Aniston completely invests in an often unflattering character and gives a strong performance that goes deeper than a physical make-under; however, the constraints of a hoary plot prevent things from getting too ugly. Even when she’s snarky and rude, Aniston can’t help but come off as at least a little sweet, embodying the film’s incongruent mix of saccharine and spoilage.
Aniston plays Claire Bennett, a frail former lawyer living in chronic pain. Scars on her face and leg suggest a traumatic accident, while her retreat from the outside world implies a deeper emotional scarring. Politely kicked out of her support group for being too caustic, Claire relies on housekeeper/assistant Silvana (Adriana Barraza) for all of her needs. The good-natured woman displays the patience of a saint. After having hallucinations of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a therapy co-participant who committed suicide, Claire forges a relationship with Nina’s husband Roy (Sam Worthington) to gain some perspective.
Information about the source of Claire’s anguish is withheld until well into the film – though it’s probably obvious considering her strained relationship with husband Jason (Chris Messina) and the existence of Roy’s young son. Not knowing doesn’t pique our interest; it makes the first half-plus of the movie feel repetitive and drawn-out. Claire is rude, then she’s in pain, then she’s rude again, then she’s popping pills, et cetera.
So Claire has scars and debilitating back pain that makes it impossible for her to sit up straight in a moving car, but she may as well have cancer, or a brain tumor, or any other selected malady, which makes the routine feel all the more familiar. There is some nuance in Claire’s abusive nature, with her being cordial only to those who can assist her in the manner she wants. She’s disruptive in her support group and hostile towards a physical therapist, but puts on her best faux-compassionate routine to sweet-talk a doctor into giving her pain pills without a prescription.
Visions of Nina are welcome only if they break the monotony, though it’s tough to gauge what the point is. The deceased woman is catty in her “conversations” with Claire, but not insightful. Like most of the supporting players, Kendrick isn’t given much relevance despite her implied importance in Claire’s arc. Worthington whispers lines from Patrick Tobin’s rote screenplay. Felicity Huffman, as the support group leader, provides Claire with information and reacts to her mood of the day. The only real punch is provided by Barraza, whose varied, organic interactions with Aniston make their relationship the only one that feels real.
The rest is all mechanics. Tobin and director Daniel Barnz posture as if they’re making a prestige picture, but give us little more than straight bromide. There’s the non-revelatory reveal of Claire’s pain source, the rock bottom breakdown – complete with tears and flying fists, the “Aha!” moment that quite literally brightens Claire’s unhappy home, and purification by way of cake-baking. And just as we sense the end is coming, we think, “Please don’t end it with…” And then it ends with that exactly.