When we first meet Claire (Jennifer Aniston), she’s mocking a woman’s suicide during a support group for sufferers of chronic pain. It’s one of those classic indie-film opening scenes, an over-the-top warning to viewers that the protagonist is going to be highly unlikable, at least for a while. As Claire digs into the lurid details of Nina’s (Anna Kendrick) suicide, her expression is almost hidden from the camera by a thick curtain of hair. We can see her face is nearly encircled by long scars. Her mouth is a scowl, and the trapezoidal shape of her jawline only makes her look more like a bully. Aniston, you realize, is going for it. She’s setting vanity aside to paint a portrait of a loathsome woman.
Cake is far and away the most interesting film Aniston has starred in since The Good Girl, way back in 2002. Aniston’s Claire is always uncomfortable, to the point where she’s contemplating suicide just so she can enjoy the relief of not hurting anymore. We know she was in some sort of an accident, and we know that she’s taking a lot of pain medication, and we know that her pain ranges from low-level ambient discomfort (that’s when she’s shifting in her seat like she’s got a bad hemorrhoid) to unbearably excruciating (that’s when she howls a little bit, like a wounded dog). There aren’t that many films out there about sufferers of chronic pain, and Cake is presumably a demonstration of why that is: Aniston’s discomfort transfers to the viewer. We don’t like to see people in pain, we’re trained to want to help alleviate it, so we cross and uncross our legs and watch Aniston’s face closely, with its parade of little stabs and twinges.
Claire’s only real friend is her caretaker, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican immigrant who knows she’s being exploited but who’s just too goddamned decent to leave Claire entirely on her own. Aniston is clearly the showcase actor in Cake, but Barraza does just as difficult a job without the assistance of prosthetic scars. She breathes life into a role that is fast becoming a cinematic cliché—the immigrant housekeeper who becomes the Sancho Panza to the white main character’s delusions—and in so doing, she imbues Silvana with believability. She knows this job is beneath her dignity, and she knows Claire is not worth redemption, but she also knows she wouldn’t be able to look herself in the eye if Claire ever killed herself. The relationship between the two women is fascinating, especially in a moving restaurant scene where they give each other the gift of a little bit of dignity.
Cake is a visually appealing movie in which Southern California looks like a hellscape of tract housing. That prefab ugliness reflects Claire’s continual pain. If she had one beautiful thing to look at, maybe she wouldn’t drink all the time and fuck strange men in an effort to forget about her body for a second. But the movie goes too far too often. Claire hallucinates visitations from Nina’s ghost, a kind of frenemy spirit who wants Claire to off herself. She befriends Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington, a lot more interesting here than in his action movies, possibly because he doesn’t have to hide his Australian accent this time.) Characters pop up at improbable moments and then disappear again forever for no good reason. The movie can’t refrain from beating the audience about the head with the obvious connection between Claire’s physical pain and her emotional pain.
The conclusions Cake reaches are way too pat. When it’s the story of two women trying to deal with the fact that they’re stuck with each other, it’s occasionally excellent. But then the rest of the movie intrudes, and you’re left with the realization that you’re just watching an uncomfortable woman ruin her own life. Hell, you can see that every day on the street for free.