REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
“Cake” is a contemporary dark comedy about a woman suffering from chronic pain, analgesics addiction, and clinical depression. Are you laughing yet?
Perhaps, somewhere there exists a genuinely funny film about this subject matter. However, “Cake” sure isn’t it.
Los Angeleno, Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston), is part of a chronic pain support group. In an opening scene, the group’s leader, Annette (Felicity Huffman), has organized a memorial service for one of their recently deceased members, Nina Simmons. As the group’s members give impromptu eulogies, it gradually unfolds that Nina has taken her own life.
Claire can’t resist using this lachrymose setting to inflict her sardonic sensibilities on her colleagues. She points out that Nina jumped off of an overpass and landed on a flatbed truck. As a consequence, her body wasn’t discovered until the truck reached Baja Mexico. Nina’s husband had to travel down there to recover the corpse. Claire notes that Nina has caused her surviving spouse the maximum amount of inconvenience possible. In a gesture of mock respect, she exclaims, “Way to go, Nina!” The other members shudder at this callous display of disrespect.
Back home, Claire indulges a hurried, emotionally detached sexual liaison with her hunky Latino gardener, Arturo (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). It plays out like a far-fetched male fantasy from a porno film.
Claire is a world class unpleasant person. She manages to alienate everyone around her. Her unwelcome antics gets her booted from the pain support group. Claire’s physical therapist (Mamie Gummer) suggests that she find someone else to work with. Eventually, it is revealed that Claire’s acerbic attitude has driven away her husband, Jason (Chris Messina).
Claire has structured her life in a way that has precluded having any family or friends in it. Claire’s only social connection is her Mexican housekeeper, Silvana (Adrianna Barazza). Although Claire pays her poorly and treats her abusively, Silvana remains devoted. Silvana not only cooks all Claire’s meals and cleans her house, but tries to encourage her boss’ recovery from a modus vivendi of random sexual encounters and prescription pain killers.
Claire knows how to play the system. To indulge her drug abuse, she scores duplicate prescriptions for painkillers from a plethora of doctors. This enables Claire to build up several stashes in excess of their therapeutic dosage. She pops these potent pills throughout the day. When Claire’s stash becomes depleted, she and Silvana venture to Tijuana to score some illicit replacement Percocets.
Claire begins to have hallucinations about Nina (Anna Kendrick), the woman from her pain support group, who committed suicide. In them, Nina exhorts Claire to also kill herself. Instead, Claire contacts Nina’s bereaved husband, Roy (a nicely understated Sam Worthington) and the young son, Casey (Evan O’Toole), she left behind. This initially promising premise seems to go nowhere.
For the role, Aniston has dramatically deglamorized herself. She wears frumpy déclassé clothing; unfrosted, stringy hair; and minimal make up. Aniston even sports an unexplained facial scar. It’s a tad overkill. Why not just have her character don an eyepatch and suffer from uncontrollable twitching?
Certainly, this is not the glammed up version of Jennifer Aniston that we have grown accustomed to. Does deglamorization equal good acting? Those who touted Aniston for an Academy Award apparently think so.
Ultimately, Aniston delivers a flat, unappealing performance. By contrast, Adrianna Barazza as her housekeeper/ best friend by default infuses the film with her sense of warmth and empathy. Alas, it’s not enough to offset the film’s myriad other problems.
The ham-handed screenplay by Patrick Tobin lacks a narrative trajectory. It is just a succession of vignettes. The gives us plenty of reason to dislike Claire, but no mitigating reason to tolerate her paroxysms of negativity. By the time that the film reveals Claire’s back story, it is too late for the viewer to adjust their attitude toward the protagonist. Worst of all, the film struggles to find its tone, which seems to have unfulfilled, jocular intentions.
Director, Daniel Baranz, returns to his indie roots after helming bigger budget, mainstream fare like “Beastly” and “Won’t Back Down.” His direction is adequate, but nothing more.
This alienating vehicle tries to extract laughs from a subject that just isn’t all that funny. “Cake” ends up being an inconsequential, bitter-tasting cupcake of a film.
“Cake” ** R (for language, substance abuse, brief sexuality) 98 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.