Cake Review: A Bittersweet Treat

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Though it suffers from some disjointed plotting, Cake bears a delightful sense of honesty thanks to serene direction and a breakthrough performance from Jennifer Aniston.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about Jennifer Aniston’s acting is that she’s always playing herself. She never fully “disappears” into a role, and is stuck doing variations of the Rachel Green character that first made her famous.

Personally, I’ve never really been bothered by this. Perhaps it’s because the “self” that Aniston puts forward is charming, effervescent, and adept at comedic timing. Not to mention, she’s one in a fairly large group of actors who’ve limited their range to a very specific set of characteristics. I’ll never understand why Aniston’s performance abilities are constantly questioned, and yet no one has come to realize that Jason Bateman has never stopped playing Michael Bluth.

The real reason I think I’m still so intrigued by Aniston is because I know there’s more to her than she lets on. Early roles in films like The Good Girl and Friends with Money offer an interesting showcase for her talents. In these films she’s vulnerable, confused, and far from a likable girl-next-door. These roles may be few and far in between, but they’ve continually peaked my interest as to what she’ll do next.

With the arrival of Cake, I see now that Aniston has been playing the long game. Interesting, authentic roles for women over a certain age don’t come around too often—unless your last name is Streep, of course—and it seems that America’s favorite Friend has been biding her time until she could pounce on the perfect part.

Her performance is certainly transformative, and not just because of the prosthetic scars she wears. In Cake she plays Claire Bennett, a woman suffering from chronic pain after a severe accident. Claire appears content taking a backseat to life. She frequently takes her pain meds with a full glass of wine, and has armored herself with a spiky exterior so no one gets too close. As the film progresses, however, Claire’s many complex layers are uncovered.

Aniston plays Claire with an understated gruffness and an impressive physicality; she’s never too showy or over-the-top with her demeanor, she’s just cold and always in pain. Some of Claire’s actions contradict one another, but Aniston handles these emotional shifts with ease, resulting in a remarkably lived-in portrayal.

It’s a shame that director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland) and writer Patrick Tobin often don’t know what to do with their leading lady. Claire’s personal journey makes several detours into the lives of other characters, and none of them is ever fully realized.

After Nina (Anna Kendrick), a member of her chronic pain support group, commits suicide, Claire becomes obsessed with her death. She’s haunted by dreams of Nina’s ghost, and even goes so far as to track down her widowed husband (Sam Worthington) in some twisted attempt for closure.

It’s clear that Claire’s investigation of Nina is her way of finding a reason not to pull the trigger herself, yet the script never dwells on any emotional beat for too long. Claire has a strained relationship with her faithful housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza), as well as her ex-husband Jason (Chris Messina), but neither of these characters are allowed to see their arcs through.

Though Barnz directs most of the film with a quiet, grounded approach, which allows for some powerful introspection, as well as some welcome moments of humor. Unfortunately, he’s unable to ignore a burst of drama that’s plopped smack in the middle of the story. It’s an obvious and convenient way to move the plot forward, which it does, but it’s nowhere near as effective as intended.

Still, even with these jumbled side-stories, Claire remains a mesmerizing presence throughout the film. Aniston might not have picked the most cohesive project for a career resurgence, but she’s certainly proved that she’s still one to watch. Grade: B


By Mike Papirmeister

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