By Preston Wilder
Cake is what I’d rather be having than watching Cake, Jennifer Aniston’s transparent bid for serious-actress status and hopefully an Oscar nomination (it failed, though she did make the shortlist at the Golden Globes). Even a cake of soap would do – since the film, after all, is pretty soapy, dealing (or wallowing) in a foamy self-pity overlaid with an equally synthetic misanthropy.
One could criticise Cake in a narrow way, by pointing out that Claire (Aniston) is ‘privileged’ (to use the buzzword du jour) so her pain is somehow invalid – and Cake does nod vaguely in that direction. Adriana Barazza plays Silvana, Claire’s devoted Mexican housekeeper, whose life, it’s implied, is objectively much harder than her employer’s. The two go to Mexico in search of illicit pills after Claire’s stash runs out, and the friendly pharmacist suggests hiding the pills in a statue of the Virgin Mary. ‘What if we get caught at the border?’ frets Claire. “You’re a rich white woman,” he replies witheringly. “Have you ever been caught in anything?”
True enough; but rich white women hurt too. Still Alice, which won Julianne Moore the Oscar, manages to be devastating with an even more ‘privileged’ protagonist. No, the real reason why Cake is indigestible is the way it offers up Claire’s suffering for our delectation – as a way for Aniston to show her range, and sink her teeth in a meaty role – giving her a carapace of rage that’s clearly there to hide her damaged psyche. Claire pops pills. Claire is mean to people. Claire has cold meaningless sex with the gardener, rolling over on her side so she doesn’t have to look at him. Claire has scars on her face and body (it’s a cliché that a beautiful actress has to make herself look ugly in order to be taken seriously), albeit not to the extent of being disfigured. If Aniston had only insisted on Claire being blind, or a quadriplegic, she might’ve won that Oscar nomination.
There are things to admire here. Support groups, and the sickly nostrums of therapy culture, are shown to be inadequate. Information about Claire’s accident – or whatever it was that caused those scars – is parcelled out slowly and carefully. And of course one hesitates to hate a film about the grieving process and recovering from trauma, because it’s bound to mean more to those who’ve endured something similar. ‘There, but for the grace of God’, and so on.
Still, Cake is half-baked. Claire suffers from “chronic pain” as a result of her accident, to the point where she contemplates suicide (and even attempts it) – but Aniston mostly looks tired, and increasingly mopey; she’s a likeable actress, but doesn’t have the expressive range to suggest a maelstrom of emotions behind the puffy façade. The scene where she plonks down on the living-room sofa with a glass of white wine and sings along to Billy Joel’s ‘Honesty’ is more her speed. Sam Worthington is also a weird choice to play the widower Claire hooks up with, supposedly full of anger at his wife for having killed herself and left him to raise a child alone; in fact, any rage is soon smothered by Worthington’s laid-back demeanour (typical line: “Doesn’t bother me either way”). Then again, his character could’ve been removed altogether, for all that he adds to the story.
Actually, no. There’s a reason why Worthington’s character is there: because he has a son, which reminds Claire of her own little son – at which point Cake turns into something more shameless, and even more soapy, a grieving-mother role that erases any early ambivalence and goes straight for pathos. Claire may be snappy (“I like any animal that bites”) and refer to herself as an “evil witch” – but now we know she’s not truly bad, just hurting. We recall that she helped Silvana when it mattered, and later asked Sam to “stay in my room with me till I fall asleep,” as if she were a child herself. We can see that she craves love and affection, behind her obnoxious exterior. We can see her anger is a drug, to numb the pain. We can give her an Oscar nomination with a clear conscience.
Death lurks around every corner in Cake – yet it never seems real; one keeps expecting suicide to become the topic of some pithy one-liner that’ll have the studio audience roaring, like they did in the days of Ross and Rachel. Silvana the maid is finally a thin character (she’s just a sidekick), and Sam the widower is a thin character, and Claire herself is a thin character. It’s a shock when she lies down on the train tracks (!) in the final act, waiting for the train to run her over, and personal details come tumbling out – because they’re the first personal, non-generic details we’ve learned in the whole superficial movie. Cake peddles soap, and expects empathy? That takes the cake.
DIRECTED BY Daniel Barnz
STARRING Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barazza, Sam Worthington
US 2014 102 mins