Cake is a hard experience to stomach. That’s not because of Jennifer Aniston’s unflinching submersion into grief, not because filmmaker Daniel Barnz explores suicidal consequences through power, and not because we’re left quivering in an emotionally ravaged pile of marred feelings, but because Aniston’s character Claire Bennett deserves a brighter spotlight. Patrick Tobin’s screenplay attempts to blend darkly humorous encounters with a soul-searching dive into the deepest of deep ends, but there’s an invisible wall holding characters back from truly entering a realm of cinematic heartbreak.
Cake feels superficial – a flat story about exposing bottled emotions that never truly uncorks the essence of human spirituality – like buttercream-frosted discs of Styrofoam decoratively assembled to mimic something more succulent if bitten into. Barnz and Tobin only scratch the surface with their somber character piece, but watching Aniston embody a recovering victim provides a nice contrast to her slutty-soccer-mom turn in We’re The Millers – if only the sum of all pieces formed a multi-layered indulgence.
Aniston stars as the aforementioned Claire Bennett, a distraught woman overcoming a devastating accident that cost her more than a few physical scars. Joining a woman’s help group at the recommendation of her doctor, Claire finds herself becoming a little obsessed when one of the girls commits suicide – possibly because of her own future plans. Sedating her physical and mental anguish with alcohol and prescription drugs, Claire starts seeing her dead “friend” Nina (Anna Kendrick) during random hallucinations, including when spending time with Nina’s now widowed husband, Roy (Sam Worthington). As Claire uses Nina’s death to help explain her own grief, questions of “when” start to become warning signs as her typical stupor becomes her only personality. Can Claire break through the emotional wall holding her back before taking Nina’s advice?
Hopelessness – an inescapable empty feeling that suggests recovery will never be attainable. A burning pain continually eating away at you with no relief. That’s the center of Claire’s liveliness when we first meet her, as she masks devastating pain with mood-altering pills, her own despicable humor, and a “zero effort” mentality when it comes to overcoming physical therapy and acceptance. This is Aniston’s time to shine, and although I believe Reese Witherspoon found a much more redemptive role in Wild, Jennifer Aniston drags herself through Hell like we’ve never seen before. Gone is the chipper, bubbly vixen that we’re so accustomed to, traded out for an ailing, visibly destroyed family-woman who’d rather listlessly waste her days buzzed than even attempt to rebuild. She turns her back on God, husband, and friends alike, as many have in times of lowliness, but it’s the smallest signs of hope that speak the loudest through Aniston’s acting. She plays “broken and beaten” with the best of them, but it’s her character’s persona that drags Cake behind so many other better stories of a soul’s rebirth – again calling to this year’s Wild.
There’s a feeling of airiness between scenes that Tobin writes, and under Barnz’s direction, the film continually feels as if it’s simply drifting from scene to scene, with as much substance as a puffy cloud. Moments feel as if bleak comedy is being forced upon the viewer, whether Anna Kendrick is judging Claire from beyond the grave or Claire finds herself cursing out elderly therapy patients, but laughs are never mustered. So much time passes as we wait for an emotional breakthrough or sweet epiphany, yet Cake mimics Claire’s catatonic state all-too-similarly through a deflated tonal miscue that never truly penetrates the character’s callused shell. Claire simply goes through a series of grief-driven motions that involve using people like Nina’s husband and her caretaker Silvana (Adriana Barraza), until Barnz and Tobin deem it time for a weak, contrived ending – we never truly experience any heartfelt, bonded moment with Claire Bennett.
At the expense of making a whole baker’s dozen of sugar-coated pastry puns (dammit!), Cake is a light and fluffy movie that’ll leave your cinematic stomach grumbling for something a bit denser. Aniston’s transformation into a ravaged, depressed ex-housewife showcases a rare bout of sincerity from everyone’s favorite Friend-next-door, aided by Adriana Barraza’s nurturing companion character (who I adore), but Tobin’s reflective journey never elevates itself above being a muddled surface experience that bizarrely seeks out comedy at the most unnecessary of times.
There’s a reason why people were only talking about Jennifer Aniston’s Best Actress bid as far as Cake‘s Oscar chances were concerned, and while Barnz’s effort does come across with ambition, the lack of human investment ends up tainting the film’s unique flavor.
Jennifer Aniston's performance might be worth biting into, but Cake lacks an emotional depth that much more appealing treats tend to showcase.