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A Painful Dessert

Cinelou Releasing
 102 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza

It’s often been said that the easiest way for an actor to get an Oscar nomination is to play someone who is physically or mentally challenged. Of course, such characters are often in a great deal of pain, but Jennifer Aniston goes most of them one better in Cake, by playing a woman whose disability literally is the continual pain she feels. So it must have been rather painful for Aniston to learn that her performance didn’t find favor with the Academy voters. It did, however, find favor with most critics, including this one.


Cake will seem quite familiar to those who remember the days when the three television networks populated their schedules with made-for-TV movies with extremely formulaic scripts, one of the more popular of which was the “disease-of-the-week” script. Typically a well-known television start, like, say Elizabeth Montgomery (the Jennifer Aniston of her day) would be stricken with some little-known disease and spend two hours coming to terms with it and either (1) getting better or (2) facing the end in gut wrenching fashion for the audience.


Of course, while a TV-movie version of Cake would probably feature a star with a similar career resume to Aniston, it’s doubtful she would have performed at anywhere near Aniston’s level. Here, she plays Claire Bennett, a woman suffering from chronic pain syndrome. Claire’s pain is constant, and the cause of the pain is an automobile accident that left her face scarred and her body badly broken. Although many of her broken bones have healed, Claire’s psyche is in worse shape than her body. She’s hooked on pain pills to deal with the physical pain and reacts by lashing out at everyone around her with bitter sarcastic wit.


As the movie begins, Claire suffers yet another blow to her fragile mental state. Nina (Anna Kendrick), a young woman in Claire’s support group, commits suicide and Claire’s inappropriate response to the news gets her banned from the group by its leader Annette (played by Felicity Huffman). Claire soon becomes obsessed with figuring out why Nina killed herself, visiting the spot where Nina jumped to her death and eventually paying a visit to Nina’s house. Soon, she develops a friendship with Nina’s former husband (Sam Worthington) and asks him more questions about what Nina was like.


Claire’s quest to learn more about Nina, along with her efforts to obtain sufficient pain medication, turn parts of Cake into a Don Quixote-like road trip with Claire’s housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) in the role of a reluctant Sancho Panza. Since Claire can’t drive, Silvana serves as chauffeur and sounding board for much of Claire’s rage and insults. Silvana winds up getting drawn into Claire’s drama far more than she probably would care to be.


Silvana is in many ways a direct descendant of the characters Thelma Ritter used to play in 50s comedies, a feisty domestic who is often the smartest character around and dishes it out as much or than she takes it. Yet, audiences must wonder why Silvana stays around Claire, remaining a part of the emotional three-ring circus Claire has constructed around herself. Of course, there’s natural sympathy for a victim like Claire, but Silvana is really the audience’s surrogate in this movie, and the audience winds up wondering just why she hangs around.


The answer to this is not spelled out per se in Cake but a large part of it can be inferred as a result of Jennifer Aniston’s portrayal of Claire. Somewhere down deep, Claire retains a bit of the charm she must have had before her accident, and Aniston reflects this subtly. Claire moves and acts clumsily and lashes out bitterly, but there’s enough of a person like Rachel from Friends in Aniston’s performance to let audiences understand and to keep characters like Silvana and Claire’s ex-husband (Chris Messina) from abandoning Claire altogether.


The mixture of caustic bitterness and occasionally sweet charm is just one facet of Claire that Aniston brilliantly portrays. Her work also requires great physical concentration as well. Because Claire is in such great pain, she has to plan out each simple body movement like sitting up or looking around, in order to avoid straining too much. Aniston never allows herself to move naturally in any scene, making Claire’s discomfort more evident to the audience.


Unfortunately, too much of Cake, other than Aniston’s performance and the wonderful dynamic she and Barraza have together, seems as artificial and forced as Claire’s movements. The movie employs a gimmick in which Nina’s ghost periodically appears and talks with Claire, usually encouraging Claire to commit suicide as well. I’m not sure what the purpose of these sequences is, but they simply don’t work. Anna Kendrick is usually a delight in any movie in which she appears, but she is totally unnecessary here.


More generally, Cake adopts a whimsical attitude towards its subject matter. I appreciate the need for humor in a movie like this to keep the film from being completely depressing, but having Claire and Silvana go on a road trip to one of the few remaining drive-ins in the country where they watch an ancient Fred Astaire musical seems like something more out of a Wes Anderson piece. A later encounter with a teenage hitchhiker is even less credible.


Jennifer Aniston gives a completely realistic, heartfelt, and credible performance in Cake. As played by Aniston, Claire is not the type of woman to have long conversations with ghosts or bring a runaway teen into her house to bake a cake. Director Daniel Barnz should have trusted his lead actress and the subject matter enough not to undercut it with fantasy and whimsical elements. Aniston’s performance dominates in this movie the screen, so viewers will be watching Cake carefully from beginning to end, but at times they’ll wish they could look away for a scene or two.


Read other reviews of Cake:


Cake (2014) on IMDb