Perhaps it’s better that Cake will be remembered (if it’s remembered at all) for the movie Jennifer Aniston used to try and get an Oscar nomination. I have nothing against Aniston, but her actions mirror this deeply cynical and pointless film. Preying on the lives of people who suffer chronic pain, Daniel Barnz’s charade of a picture is at turns obvious, trite, and pandering. There’s only the façade of emotion as its hollow protagonist wanders through a shell of a picture trying to elicit our emotions simply because she’s sad.
Claire Bennett (Aniston) suffers from chronic pain caused by a to-be-announced accident that left her scarred and childless. The revelation that a member in her support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has committed suicide leads Claire to wonder if it would be better if she ended her life too, but in the meantime she’s content to spend her days popping painkillers, relying heavily on her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza), and napping. When Claire starts having visions of Nina, it leads her to seek out Nina’s husband Roy (Sam Worthington), who’s in mourning but might still provide more emotional support.
Rather than bring us into Claire’s life, Barnz makes us another enabler of her behavior. There’s nothing brazenly awful about Claire’s attitude, and mostly she seems like someone who’s having a crummy day. She’s a bad person, but not in the sense of tearing people down as much as using them to achieve her own ends. We know Claire has money—or at least enough money to afford a fairly nice house—but rather than hire a qualified caretaker, she uses Silvana, who’s cheaper and won’t stop her employer’s drug-seeking behavior. And Roy could probably use the comfort of friends and family, but since he apparently has neither aside from his young son, a total stranger and her morbid curiosity is going to come bounding into his life. The world revolves are Claire Bennett, and her pain supersedes anyone else’s concerns. She has Silvana for simple tasks, Roy for emotional support, and us for pity.
We’re not meant to share in the character’s experience but bear witness to its pain and the power of the actress who has graced us with the strength and tenacity to play such a shallow role. I don’t have anything against Jennifer Aniston, and I will give her credit for trying to go small with the role rather than earn her nomination for Most Acting (a strategy the Academy loves; see August: Osage County). But rather than disappear into the role, Aniston just disappears. The script tells us everything we need to know from her physical scars representing emotional ones to her imagined conversations with Nina’s ghost that allow Claire to verbalize a thought process we already know. If a woman is going to go to an overpass where another woman committed suicide, we don’t need a later conversation where she says, “Hey, I’m thinking about killing myself.”
The movie doesn’t even elicit groans, although it does feature some terrible lines like Claire asking her ex-husband (Chris Messina) to tell her “a story where everything works out for the evil queen in the end,” as if we still haven’t figured out that she’s filled with self-loathing but for the wrong reasons. Barnz has overwhelming sympathy for his protagonist as he drains the palette, keeps the music low, and plays to the loneliness of the character. Cake becomes locked into this misery that isn’t even a downward spiral, but a loop where her daily life is being depressed and wincing at physical pain but never giving us a glimpse at what that kind of life means beyond exploiting others.
Even if the movie wasn’t a showcase for an actress’ desire for a trophy or even if the Oscar didn’t even exist, Cake would still be the definition of a vanity project. It’s self-involved in more ways than one, and has nothing but contempt for its audience as it clumsily conveys pain for pain’s sake without providing any emotional connection to its shallow characters. Cake is painful but only in the sense that it’s a mindless chore.