DIR: Daniel Barnz • WRI: Patrick Tobin • PRO: Courtney Solomon, Kristin Hahn, Mark Canton, Ben Barnz • DOP: Rachel Morrison • ED: Kristina Boden, Michelle Harisson • MUS: Christophe Beck • DES: Joseph T. Garrity • CAST: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Felicity Huffman
Famed for comedies and romantic comedies, Jennifer Aniston has amassed an impressive filmography since her television career climaxed in 2004. While she has garnered commercial success in films such as Marley and Me (2008), Horrible Bosses (2011) and We’re the Millers (2013) critical opinion has pointed to Aniston’s inability to break free from the often hapless but endearing characters that have marked her work. Aniston has previously gone against type and toyed with more sophisticated performances in films such as The Good Girl (2002) and Derailed (2005) but the romantic comedy genre has remained a safety net for Aniston, providing an indemnity against commercial loss and overall critical maligning. Cake however, a powerful and melancholic drama, marks an immense departure from Aniston’s fluffy comedic roles, presenting a platform whereby she may showcase her merit as a serious and versatile actress.
Aniston plays damaged and fragile Claire Bennett, whose physical and emotional pain tortures her daily. She belongs to a chronic pain support group but finds the meetings more beneficial as an outlet for her profound anger. When she is thrown out of the group for her flippant remarks about co-member Nina’s suicide, Claire continues on a self-destructive path, becoming heavily addicted to painkillers and alcohol. As her condition deteriorates, suicide becomes a hugely inviting recourse and out of curiosity, she orchestrates an encounter with Nina’s widower Roy and soon the sardonic Claire and empathetic Roy discover they have more in common than they initially realised.
Stripped of glamour, marked with physical scars and burdened with restricted mobility, Aniston approaches the role of misanthropic Claire Bennett with an almost obsessive-like ferocity. Claire is a deeply tortured woman who endures such intense physical and mental paralysis; her body is unwilling to heal. Suffering defines Claire Bennett and her substance abuse, meaningless sexual encounters and caustic tongue are the only means she has to insulate her daily torment.
One of the most problematic aspects of Cake is that the audience is oblivious to the root of Claire’s exhaustive distress for a considerable part of the film. Outward circumstances steer Claire’s rancorous behaviour but in the absence of a clear motivation, the focus on Claire’s increasing burden becomes a test of endurance, the audience empathising with her pain but unable to identify with her suffering. Cake contains very little in the way of a plot and as such the narrative is structured upon Claire’s trajectory from trauma to healing. As a result, the relentless pace of angst becomes both draining and distancing. While it is arguably Aniston’s most exacting role to date and the demands made of her as an actor are relentless, there is a cynical undertone that Cake is merely a vehicle whereby Aniston can demonstrate a broad range of acting capabilities and finally silence her critics.
Cake attempts to balance its profound morbidity with comedic and supernatural elements intended to disrupt the paranoia and cynicism that suffocates the narrative. Adriana Barraza as devoted housekeeper Silvana reveals a hugely different emotional landscape and her sensitivity towards her employer provides a heartening antidote to Claire’s heightened anxiety. Nina’s ghost returns, on cue, to haunt and taunt a saturnine Claire, as she was incipiently thawing through her friendship with Roy. Both Anna Kendrick as the sneering spirit and Felicity Huffman as the mawkish group support leader also bring a much welcome reprieve but alas, the supporting acts and their relationships to Claire are all too sporadic to soothe the macabre milieu Claire inhabits.
Despite a formidable and kaleidoscopic performance, there is a sense that the themes of human frailty and the will to heal that inform the film’s narrative are beyond Aniston’s abilities as a serious dramatic actress. Her physicality may be transformed and the comedic quips replaced with acerbic, sardonic jibes but her performance lacks the emotional resonance required to bring Claire Bennett from a state of complete desolation to a place of untroubled acceptance. Aniston fails to evoke the visceral reactions that have given her much currency in romantic comedies and one could be forgiven for thinking that Claire Bennett in Cake is merely Jennifer Aniston having a bad day.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Cake is released 20th February 2015