Sunday, January 25, 2015
There is a sense of people being up in arms about Cake, the new film in which Jennifer Aniston plays a woman with mysterious scars who is addicted to pain medication. Words like "terrible" and "unwatchable" have been thrown around, especially after Aniston received a Golden Globe nomination. Cake is not unwatchable, but nor is it "good" by any reasonable definition. Critical upset over the film, directed by Daniel Barnz, has more to do with its transparent nature as an Oscar-bait project and to some degree with the way we think about Jennifer Aniston herself.
Aniston plays Claire, whom we meet in the middle of offending the members of her chronic pain support group. Claire is divorced from a kindly lawyer (Chris Messina) we meet in one scene and she has only Silvana (the very good Adriana Barraza) as maid and chauffeur. We don't learn the cause of Claire's injuries until later in the film, and first we assume they are somehow connected to the suicide of fellow support group member Nina (Anna Kendrick). Claire's hallucinations of Nina - who urges Claire to kill herself - point to a dark secret, and why is Claire tracking down Nina's husband (Sam Worthington) and young son? When the answers are revealed Cake turns out to be a schematic movie about loss, grief, and recovery. Claire must come out the other side in order to face her life whole again, and this is how she does it. So, why all the fuss?
Jennifer Aniston plays entitlement very well, and as Claire she turns her natural haughtiness into something off putting. The way that Claire alternately depends on and harangues Silvana points to the idea that somewhere in here there was a better film about class and the way that domestic workers feel about their employers. Cake isn't that film though, save for a scene of Silvana with her own daughter and a trip to Tijuana that turns into one of Claire's kinder moments. Aniston gives a performance here that is probably about as good as she is capable of. She is believably emotionally bruised and dryly funny in a self-lacerating way. The problem with Cake is that about the third time that Anna Kendrick's character shows up a sense starts to take over that the film is putting Aniston through the wringer. Once the ground rules of Claire's suffering are established there is only direction the film can go, and the feeling of a woman's life in free fall is replaced by one of a screenwriter pulling strings. If you don't like Cake that's fine, I don't much either, but Aniston shouldn't be faulted for attempting a role that asks more of her than stuff like this. What is she supposed to do? The lack of roles for women in their 40's isn't a problem that's going away soon, but until that time Oscar season will continue to feel something like this film does.