Review by: Gordon K. Smith
Jennifer Aniston gives a career-milestone performance in CAKE, a movie you’ve no doubt already heard about due to Aniston’s lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, despite Golden Globe and SAG nominations. She has taken it in good spirit, proudly wearing the label of “number one Oscar snub” (among a year of many), but would no doubt confirm the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity; so lots of people now know about a small film that’s just now getting release.
Jennifer plays Claire Bennett, whom we first see, scarred and unkempt, in a chronic-pain group therapy session, where she’s being asked to question the group leader (an effectively icy Felicity Huffman), standing in for a former member (Nina, who haunts Claire in the form of Anna Kendrick) who committed suicide. This is about the only plot point in CAKE that’s delivered up front; if you’ve read nothing about the film, you have to glean bit by bit what drove Nina, and what drives Claire, and not all those questions get answered in Patrick Tobin’s screenplay. Claire’s sardonic response gets her kicked out of the group (and sets up a black comedy atmosphere that’s not quite what follows, although there are some moments of levity, if not enough).
We soon learn that Claire is addicted to painkillers, lives in a nice southern California home although she doesn’t seen to have a job, and was traumatized, physically and mentally, by…something. As do most addicted characters, she’s miserable, lies and deceives to get drugs, has meaningless sex, misuses people, is self-absorbed. She can afford to be looked after by her Hispanic housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza, again playing a domestic as she did in BABEL, and again making her a believable, three-dimensional character). Claire becomes obsessed with Nina’s suicide and gradually tries to replace her, more or less, in the lives of Nina’s widowed husband Ray and preschool son. Ray is well played by AVATAR’S Sam Worthington, who gets to use his native Australian accent here, yet Claire never asks him about that (always irks me when movie characters don’t mention the obvious). Ray’s feelings about his wife’s suicide are not what Claire expects, yet she still has visions of Nina compelling her to continue her identity takeover, to its inevitable conclusion.
We never find out how well Claire knew Nina before, or why Nina was in the group in the first place, and not until late in the proceedings do we find out why Claire was (mild spoiler follows). With some flash cuts courtesy director Daniel Barnz and a bitter confrontation with her ex-husband (a striking William H. Macy in a one-scene cameo, despite his billing), we learn he somehow caused a terrible car crash that killed her young son and left her in the sad shape she’s in. This happens in the presence of Ray – who never asks her about her past, before or after this.
For most of its length this is a well-acted, engrossing, yet depressing, rather morbid drama which does finally allow its subject some healing and hope (symbolized by the title object—yes, it means a real cake – and a car seat – you have to see it). It’s worth seeing for our Jen, going 180 degrees against type the way Charlize Theron did in MONSTER. She bravely performed the role without makeup (which also must’ve helped the budget) and makes Claire’s inner and outer pain believable and moving. Did she deserve a nomination? As much as, say, Reese Witherspoon in WILD and Felicity Jones in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, yes. Maybe seeing the America’s Dream Girl in this state was too off-putting (but it worked for Charlize and Liz Taylor in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?). See it, but make sure you’re in the right frame of mind first.