There’s been some recent talk about Jennifer Aniston’s performance in “Cake” as a potential dark horse for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Allow us to put a stop this. Aniston digs deeper than she has in recent years, encroaching on territory much darker than people are accustomed to seeing her in, but thanks to a bloated screenplay from Patrick Tobin, and by-the-numbers direction from Daniel Barnz, “Cake” wallows in self-pity too much to sustain any true merit. This holds true for her performance, even though we still recommend the film to fans of her work because there are occasional moments of crackling wit and emotional investment.
Claire Simmons (Aniston) attends a chronic pain support group as part of her therapy for getting over an overwhelming tragic event in her life. She is a broken woman, both physically, as presented with scars all over her body, and psychologically, seen by how she reacts to fellow group member Nina’s (Anna Kendrick) suicide and how she treats her kind housekeeper Silvana (Adrianna Barraza). “I hate it when suicides make it easy on the survivors,” she spews with sarcasm in the opening scene. With a husband who left her, and in such physical pain that she always has to lie horizontally in the passenger’s seat while barking orders at Silvana, Claire is one lonely, bitter, depressed woman.
One night, after popping a handful of Oxycodones and Robaxacets, Claire envisions Nina in a lucid dream. The dead woman taunts her and tries to convince her to give in to her own suicidal thoughts. As a way to deal with all of this, Claire begins to dig into the reasons behind Nina’s suicide. She visits the location of where it happened and manipulates her way into obtaining Nina’s address from the support group. When she visits Nina’s old house, she meets widower Roy (Sam Worthington), and, with cracked lives as a common denominator, the two begin to see each other on a platonic basis. Nina continues to make her strange appearances, and Claire continues to tunnel through her depression by using everyone around her.
We get the feeling that Tobin, Barnz, and Aniston wanted to create a dark, deeply troubled figure with Claire. Aniston, for example, chose to not to wear any make-up for the role. It could be a fear of not wanting to create a larger-than-life persona, but Claire ends up being an inconsistently developed character. Her selfishness is noted on a regular basis, but overall, she’s a mixed bag of comedy, compassion, resentment, and self-pity, to the point that she becomes too far removed from reality to truly resonate as a genuine person.
The concept of conversing with Nina becomes comical for all the wrong reasons and is the biggest culprit responsible for the tonal issues in “Cake.” Yes, there are moments when the fabrication behind Claire’s arc breaks to reveal a real person, and the filmmaker’s have Aniston to thank for this, because it’s certainly not the bland dialogue or unremarkable events. Ultimately, however, a few chuckles can’t cover up the fact that this is a character study of a character not worth studying. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.