By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Why would anyone want to pay good money to see a movie about someone who is suffering, who is in misery? Does it make us feel better about our own lives? Is that what made things like “The Elephant Man” and “My Left Foot” and “The Theory of Everything” hits? There’s really no good philosophical answer to the question. Of those three films, the standout factor was a remarkable performance by the lead actor.
In “Cake,” the same is true. We get a performance from Jennifer Aniston that probably no one but Aniston knew she was capable of. She plays Claire Bennett, a woman who is suffering, who is in misery, who is dealing with chronic pain due to an accident that’s never discussed in detail. It’s referred to as something in the past. When we meet Claire, she’s had pins in her legs for more than a year, and there’s been no improvement in her pain level for six months.
This has made her frustrated, angry, antagonistic. She has no patience for others, even those in her chronic pain support group – a group that has been caught off guard by the suicide of one of its members, Nina. But Claire can’t get caught up in Nina’s decision to end her pain by jumping off a freeway overpass. She’s too busy dealing with her own problems. She can walk around but only slowly, and with a grimace. She has to keep her head straight and turn with her whole body. She’s addicted to pain killers, which only work for a little while. Her marriage has fallen apart. She has scars on her legs and face. She’s stopped caring about the way she looks, has turned all frumpy. Her nasty attitude, complete with salty language, is so bad she gets kicked out of the support group, by phone. Her relationship with her husband has gone so far south, he, too, uses the phone to leave a message for her: He wants to come by the house to pick up his stuff when she’s not home.
Why would anyone want to see what sounds like such a bleak movie? For many reason, among them Aniston’s measured and sure portrayal of a woman going through such a rough time but never giving up; a terrific supporting role by Mexican actress Adrianna Barraza (“Amores Perros”) as her hardworking, long-suffering, endlessly patient housekeeper Sylvana; a series of cameos by Anna Kendrick (someone I never praise, but who deserves a gold star on her forehead this time) as Nina, who keeps making “ghostly” appearances; and the fact that although this is a sad, sad movie, it also contains bright lights of dark humor.
There’s no straightforward story here. It’s more of a series of peeks at Claire’s worsening circumstances and never-changing condition. Moaning and sighing more than she speaks, Claire sometimes has to put up a positive front when dealing with others ... until she can’t anymore, as when she freaks out at one of her group sessions. She can be herself and even relax just a little when Sylvana is around, because Sylvana is so caring. She can completely relax, and even be pretty much free from pain, when she soothingly floats around in a swimming pool.
A glimmer of a story does take shape when curiosity gets the best of her, and she sets out on a search to figure out why Nina gave up and went the suicide route. This involves Sylvana driving her around, while she lies down in the back of the car. A couple of the stops she makes are the overpass where Nina made her jump, and the home where Nina shared a life with her husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), who appears calm and quiet, but reveals himself to be bitter and to hate Nina for what she did to him/them. Claire wears pain all over her body; Roy wears it just on his face.
The film gets odder as Nina’s “visits” with Claire, usually at inopportune moments, become more frequent and more bizarre. More and more layers of Claire’s poignant story are slowly and subtly revealed, and there’s not much doubt that before it’s over, before her droll sense of humor gets to bloom, before the title of the film is explained, you’ll get to like her.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Patrick Tobin; directed by Daniel Barnz
With Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Chris Messina
Movie review: Cake’ showcases Jennifer Aniston at her best
By Ed Symkus