Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington
It has long been thought that if an actress plays against type in a role far less glamorous to that with which we have become accustomed to seeing her, it is a sure-fire formula for awards glory. However, as Jennifer Aniston’s recent lack of acknowledgement at both the Oscars and the BAFTAs has proved, it’s not always a guaranteed method for success.
To be fair to the former ‘Friend’, this is the single most impressive performance on her filmography since 2002’s The Good Girl. And it is rightly deserving of the all the critical praise it has received. However, it is not one that’s worthy of such shiny accolades as those it was tipped for.
Aniston plays Claire Bennett, the embittered survivor of a tragic accident that has left her in a state of prolonged mental and physical pain. After her acerbic attitude causes the local Chronic Pain Support Group to abandon her, Claire finds herself with no one to turn to for help but her long-suffering housemaid Silvana (Adriana Barraza). However, the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick) soon sets off a chain reaction, which pushes Claire to confront her own demons and possibly find a way to move forward in her life.
If this all sounds very middle-of-the-road then that’s because it is. Befitting of its title, Cake is a film that follows a basic recipe; it’s more of a traditional Victoria Sponge than a tangy Lime & Ginger Drizzle loaf.
Director Daniel Barnz, working from Patrick Tobin’s screenplay, does strive to give Claire’s painful search for hope some sharpness by smothering the mixture with a bittersweet icing of black humour. But more often than not, the taste it leaves is a sour one. As we watch Claire push herself closer to the edge, Cake’s atmosphere is one of affectingly persistent pain augmented with moments of fierce energy, and next to this many of the laughs sit uneasy.
There are other creative blemishes too that feel stale and superfluous; for example, the decision to withhold many of the details regarding Claire’s trauma during the first hour. The extended ambiguity is clearly designed to help build up to a mighty emotional crescendo, similar to that so successfully demonstrated by Ned Benson in the as yet unreleased Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. But because so many of the facts surrounding Claire’s story are heavily signposted from the start, the payoff is more of a whimper than a cry.
Indeed, this predictability is a problem that plagues the film throughout. There’s very little that’s original here, and as such Barnz fails to pack the emotional punch he clearly wants to make. On the whole it’s a messy, melodramatic mix.
Enhancing the film from the start is Aniston, who determinedly uses this as a vehicle to prove her capabilities playing against type. It’s a mature and measured performance. Claire’s caustic nature makes her unlikeable at times, but she’s never someone who’s hateful. Aniston expertly etches her character’s agony into the scars on her face and in the movements she struggles to make. Claire may be prone to regular outbursts of scathing sarcasm, but given everything she’s been through, it’s impossible not to be sympathetic to and invested in her personal plight.
Much of the support is equally as effective. It’s true that Anna Kendrick only seems to be present in order to explain the title, and William H. Macy’s appearance is so brief it hardly deserves such a high billing. But Adriana Barraza offers understated strength throughout, while Sam Worthington makes a moving mark as the husband who is left to deal with the damage inflicted on himself and his son following Nina’s suicide.
Ultimately though, it all hangs on Aniston’s bold and balanced depiction of a woman experiencing an unimaginable suffering. It’s just a shame that the film around her is unable to rise to the same levels of quality. Barnz may think he can balance heartache and humour, but it’s a mostly fruitless attempt to have his cake and eat it too.