Despite the fact that she's made a lot of terrible career choices, I like Jennifer Aniston. Her comic talents are considerable and she's got an appealingly natural screen presence, but few filmmakers seem to understand how to use her effectively. She's particularly good at capturing various shades of frustration: look at her work as the frustrated low-income maid in Friends with Money, the frustrated trophy wife in Life of Crime and the frustrated “good girl” of The Good Girl. Aniston's work in Cake is yet another compelling portrait of frustration, but this time her performance is surrounded by a metric ton of inspirational drama hooey.
The most immediately striking thing about Aniston's work in Cake is how far she's gone to downplay her magazine-ready looks. She plays Claire, a non-practicing attorney attempting to recover from some sort of horrific accident that left her body covered with scars (the film slowly – and pointlessly – doles out the specifics over time). She usually looks like she hasn't showered in days (her skin is clammy, and her hair is stringy and greasy), and she's given up on putting any kind of effort into her life. She has her housekeeper Silvana (Adrianna Barraza, Drag Me to Hell) drive her around town while she lays down in a fully-reclined passenger's seat and stares and the roof of her minivan. “Why don't you just try to sit up,” Silvana begs. Aniston repeatedly refuses, and the reclined seat becomes a recurring symbol of Claire's unwillingness to work past her problems.
It's clear that Aniston was gunning for some awards attention – few things generate awards buzz faster than an actress “de-glamming” for a role, and Aniston secured a Golden Globe nomination despite the film's bad reviews – but to her credit, it's actually a pretty good performance. She captures her character's physical pain in impressively understated fashion, using subtle body language to convey certain things far more eloquently than cries of agony ever could (though there are a few of those, too). There are strong shades of Edie Falco's Nurse Jackie in Claire, who has serious pill-popping problems and a tendency to undercut potentially emotional moments with sharp jabs. At times, it almost feels as if Aniston is doing battle with the film itself, which bathes everything in soft music, gentle imagery and Hallmark sentiment. The battle is inevitably lost, and by the final act every last ounce of bite has been drained from the proceedings.
There's a spark of life in the alternately flinty and touching scenes between Claire and Silvana (particularly during a drug-seeking journey to Tijuana), but things tend to get fuzzier when we focus on the other supporting characters. Claire attends a chronic pain support group overseen by the friendly-but-patronizing Annette (Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives), but the group is currently preoccupied by the recent suicide of Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air), one of its former members. Claire begins seeing hallucinatory visions of Nina (played by Kendrick as a chipper suburban demon), and eventually begins to form an unusual relationship with Nina's widower Roy (Sam Worthington, Avatar). Alas, most of this material feels reheated from other addiction flicks and quirky indie dramedies (the Kendrick sequences have a fun satirical edge, but they feel fairly out-of-sync with everything else here).
Director Daniel Barnz previously gave us the unbearably preachy Won't Back Down (I hesitate to even mention his dreadful fairy tale adaptation Beastly), and his insistence on heavy-handedness is ultimately what sinks Cake, too. There's a good deal of wisdom and humor lurking beneath the surface of the movie (I respect the fact that it doesn't treat Claire's suffering as a blessing in disguise), but Barnz is so determined to wring drama out of every scene that he effectively kills a promising dark comedy (word has it that Patrick Tobin's screenplay is a hilarious read). The closing revelations are predictable and familiar; a half-baked version of the sort of tragedy that has been significantly better-depicted elsewhere (I won't say where, lest I reveal the film's cards). I hope that Aniston's next movie is about an actress frustrated with the way the film she's starring in keeps undercutting her fine performance.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2014