Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) is in pain. Chronic pain, actually, the kind she tries to relieve by attending a support group for women who live with the same kind of chronic pain. Claire Simmons has been violently hurt in the past. Does the support group help? Not really. They’re much more concerned with the recent death of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a favorite of the group who recently killed herself in an excessively grim manner. We learn all this within the opening seconds of Daniel Barnz’s Cake, not because of a clever script or neat direction, or because Aniston or anyone else in her group are able to convey what’s going on with snappy conversation or finely tuned physical expression, but because it is all handed to us without question.
We know Claire is in pain because she moves stiffly, we know it’s the result of an accident because she’s covered in scars, we know that Nina is dead because a giant portrait of her is ringed by heartbroken women. We even know that Claire is in a support group for women with chronic pain, because a large chalkboard reads “WOMEN’S CHRONIC PAIN SUPPORT GROUP.” Even from its first moments, Barnz’s film doesn’t trust its audience to unravel his predictable, rote film for themselves.
It will only get worse.
Claire is aggressively unlikable even as she’s clearly in a lot of pain (both emotional and physical). This is the kind of role often billed as “transformative,” and while Aniston dives into the physical aspects of the role with great gusto, Patrick Tobin’s script doesn’t allow her to truly explore the emotional shades of Claire’s issues. Everything is big and blunt and totally at face value. Larger plot developments come care of exposition and a series of props that are often in bafflingly bad taste (is there cake in Cake? you bet, and more). Did Aniston expect this to be a buzzy awards role? Probably, but so much of it is out of her hands that you can’t help but feel badly for her.
Soon after we meet her, Claire is punted out of the support group, mainly because she’s a bitch (her own words). Claire isn’t very interested in actually healing – despite going through the motions – but she is fixated on Nina’s death, and the film’s loose plot is roughly assembled around her exploring both how and why Nina killed herself. For some reason, that also includes stalking Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington) and son (Evan O’Toole), taking a lot of drugs and being rude to her dedicated housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza). It’s rambling and rough and unrefined, and despite the emotional currency Aniston is so desperate to trade on here, the stakes remain low throughout the feature.
The nature of Claire and Nina’s relationship is only briefly hinted at before being abandoned and wholesale ignored. While Cake piles on obvious details (again, no, we don’t need a sign at the support group that literally tells us what it is), it pushes aside truly compelling stuff, never to return to it again. Nina (at least, a spectral Nina who appears to Claire during such amateur narrative devices as “a bad nightmare” and “a drug-induced hallucination”) changes as Claire does, and Aniston and Kendrick exhibit a strong chemistry – it’s too bad that they’re rarely on screen with each other and that they have to do it in a film like Cake. Someone should pair them up again in a different feature, the results will likely be far better (they’d have to be).
It should come as no surprise that Aniston signed up for the film early, because little about the film’s weak script and Barnz’s basic direction would prove appealing enough to the stacked supporting cast on their own (slim) merits. Aniston is joined in the film by such talents as Britt Robinson, Lucy Punch, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Chris Messina and Mamie Gumer, most of whom flit in and out with little rhyme or reason (Macy’s appearance is particularly shocking and strange). Adriana Barraza is the only supporting character who really breaks out, and even Worthington and Kendrick are given little to do or explore.
Aniston has gone dark before – The Good Girl is still her hallmark dramatic role, even The Break-Up allowed her to flex some serious muscles and Friends With Money is perhaps her most nuanced and fiercely felt performance ever – and while it’s understandable that she’d want to try that again, Cake wasn’t the way to go about it. Dry, unsatisfying and hard to swallow, there’s little about Cake that’s worth the intake.
The Upside: Aniston admirably explores darker material, Adriana Barraza turns in the film’s best performance by far (and, yes, it’s a good one, even by comparison to the rest of this dismal outing).
The Downside: A predictable and thin script, the majority of the supporting cast is utterly underused, third act twists are laughable, the stakes are absurdly low, ham-fisted direction that assumes its audience is stupid and unable to process clues, a number of dropped and underexplained subplots, the definition of “awards bait.”
On the Side: Director Barnz identifies himself as an Aniston fan – which helped pump up his obvious joy when the actress signed on for her role back in February.