Jennifer Aniston, in her best film for quite some time, plays a woman in chronic pain who hides her constant agony behind an acid tongue.
Claire Bennett (Aniston) is not the kind of person who does well at support groups. But her irritatingly optimistic doctor (Lucy Punch) insists that her chronic pain, which prevents her from sitting upright in a car, is as much psychological as physical. And so Claire finds herself being pressed to share her feelings by group leader Annette (Felicity Huffman). But Claire’s relentless acerbity on the recent suicide of group member Nina (Anna Kendrick) forces Annette to kick her out of the group.
Claire is socially isolated apart from her long-suffering Mexican maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza), and self-destructive trysts with passing gardeners and pool-boys like Arturo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). But as long as she has her pain meds everything is fine. Well, until she starts to hallucinate conversations with the dead Nina…
Claire soon finds herself compelled to intrude on the grieving of Nina’s husband Roy (Sam Worthington). As they bond over their respective losses, Claire finds herself being drawn out of her self-imposed solitude. Soon she’s re-established contact with her estranged husband Jason (Chris Messina), and finds herself giving advice to runaway teenager Becky (Britt Robertson). Is Claire finally ready to heal, both mentally and physically, from her traumatic car accident?
Cake is a not a plot-driven movie, it’s a character study. It just so happens that that character bears a more than passing resemblance to Gregory House MD.
House had a gammy leg, Claire bears scars from her face and neck all the way down to her leg. House popped vicodin like tic-tacs, Claire favours oxy. Both are given to hallucinating antagonistic conversations and waspishly driving away well-wishers with a string of insults.
Not that such an overlap of characterisation diminishes Aniston’s performance, it merely renders Cake less original than might be claimed. And, given that writer Patrick Tobin’s only other credit is from the mid-1990s, makes you wonder how long it stewed in development hell.
Aniston arguably hasn’t embraced a role like this since The Good Girl, and it’s refreshing to see her rom-com tics vanish. Cake is a world away from Aniston’s 2009 curiosity Love Happens in dealing with grief. Love Happens was half rom-com, half serious meditation on bereavement; the latter clearly informed by the writer/director’s own experiences.
Cake dispenses with the sickly rom-com clichés, and, bar a regrettable but perhaps inevitable moment at the end, allows a deglamorised Aniston flesh out a believable, unpredictable, hurting person.
Cake is a serious change of pace for director Daniel Barnz too. This is the first of his movies (Phoebe in Wonderland, Beastly, Won’t Back Down) that he hasn’t also written, and perhaps being a hired hand suits him.
Working with Fruitvale Station cinematographer Rachel Morrison, he creates a California that is distinctly unglamorous and devoid of famous landmarks. Instead this is a land of spaghetti junction motorways, well-to-do houses, and cramped apartments, where the muted colour scheme is enlivened only by the saturated vision of Nina’s ghost.
The final person changing things up is Perseus himself Sam Worthington, who loses the apparent stage fright that comes over him in blockbusters; instead loosening up and employing his own Australian accent as Nina’s angry widower.
Kendrick has a surprisingly small role to play as Nina, but adds an edge of menace to her perma-smile as the hallucination pushing Claire to admit defeat to chronic pain and just end it all like she did. Felicity Huffman also gets to be nastier than normal, with Annette forcing Claire to leave a peace offering of vodka on the floor rather than hand it to her; a power play which involves excruciating pain for Claire.
Cake may feel a bit too familiar to House fans, but Aniston’s lead performance is an interesting flexing of her dramatic acting muscles and is one well worth catching.
Cake is out Friday 20th February