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D: Daniel Barnz / 102m

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, Chris Messina, William H. Macy, Lucy Punch, Britt Robertson

Claire Bennett (Aniston) attends a chronic pain support group following a car accident that has left her severely injured and in constant pain. At one meeting she learns that another member of the group, Nina Collins (Kendrick), has committed suicide. When it’s Claire’s turn to express how she feels about this, she is cruel and acerbic. When she gets home, she finds a message on her phone from Annette (Huffman) who suggests Claire find another support group. There’s another message, from her estranged husband, Jason (Messina), but she ignores it.

Claire has a housemaid, Silvana (Barraza), who also drives her from place to place when needed. They have a combative relationship, especially when it comes to the amount of medication Claire consumes (she even hides extra pills around the house). However, Claire relies on her too much to fire her. One night, Claire has a vision of Nina in which Nina challenges Claire as to why she hasn’t committed suicide herself. The next day, at her aquatic therapy appointment Claire tries to drown herself but her instinct for survival stops her. Following this, Claire contacts Annette and blackmails her into giving her Nina’s address. She goes there and meets Nina’s husband, Roy (Worthington).

A mutually supportive relationship develops between them. This leads to Claire beginning to feel a little better about herself (though she still persuades Silvana to take her to Tijuana where she can get some stronger, non-prescribed medication). She starts to make things up to people, including Annette, and allows Roy to bring his son over to her house for lunch. The visit prompts several unhappy reminiscences but while she’s able to deal with them it proves impossible when Claire receives another, unwanted, visitor: the man (Macy) who caused the car accident. Claire attacks him and later takes an overdose. In hospital, and following another disturbing vision of Nina, she makes the decision to try and get by without any further medication.

Cake - scene

An often stark, unshowy drama with spells of unexpected indifference to its own characters, Cake nearly overcomes its dour presentation thanks to an inspired performance by Aniston. In many ways, the movie wouldn’t be as good without her – she provides some much needed depth throughout, and a strong focal point. Claire is a great role for any actress, but Aniston is convincing from beginning to end, every painful twitch and grimace played so naturally the viewer could be forgiven for wondering if Aniston had deliberately injured herself ahead of filming.

With her puffy face, lank hair and baggy clothing, Claire is a woman whose only focus in life is her physical pain; beyond that, everything else is of minimal importance. She’s wounded, physically and emotionally, and is struggling to move forward. Without her medication, or her caustic view on life, she would have nothing. Struggling to keep mind and body together, she bullies Silvana, manipulates Roy, and keeps her distance from Jason, but even with these interactions and off-kilter relationships – especially her visions of Nina – she begins to find a way back to the person she was before the accident. It’s a gradual, carefully shaded portrayal, with Aniston keeping a lot below the surface but using her eyes to convey the warring emotions inside Claire. It’s an honest, deeply affecting performance and Aniston’s presence in the movie, as mentioned above, makes it all the more compelling.

If Aniston hadn’t committed to the project, or a similar performance hadn’t been provided by another actress, then Cake would not be as good a movie as it is. The problem lies with Patrick Tobin’s emotionally redolent screenplay, which focuses so completely on its main character that, Silvana aside, everyone else is underwritten and orbit around Claire to little effect. Roy and Claire’s relationship always looks to be a platonic one, so the usual will-they-won’t-they dramatics are ignored from the moment they first meet (there’s also a distinct lack of chemistry between Aniston and Worthington that undercuts things even further). The only other character of merit is Nina, but Kendrick is stuck with playing her as interfering and annoying rather than as the representation of Claire’s conscience that she should be. Thankfully, Barraza gives a wonderful performance that often matches Aniston’s for emotional honesty, Silvana’s increasing affection for Claire given full expression through every exasperated sigh and shrug of her shoulders.

The rest of the movie contains a lot of elements that don’t appear fully formed or thought through. Nina’s suicide, the McGuffin that propels the movie, is never explored from the angle of why she was at the pain support group in the first place, and the note she leaves, while meant to be poignant, instead comes across as poorly chosen and clichéd. Macy’s character turns up for no discernible reason other than as a chance to inject some much needed (actual) drama into proceedings; by this time we know the circumstances of Claire’s accident and its consequences, so it’s baffling as to why he’s there. And a later sequence that sees Claire chatting regretfully with Nina while lying across a train track, and which should be one of the movie’s standout moments, is let down by some trite dialogue and Barnz’ clumsy framing.

Further problems are caused by Barnz’ inability to maintain a consistent tone, and to move the camera in ways that might prove visually interesting, or at least stave off the criticism that most scenes are made up of dull shots of Claire being upset. It’s a bland, desaturated movie to watch, with disjointed rhythms and a lack of grace when dealing with shifts in emphasis and mood. There are moments of black humour – Claire asking Roy where he got the granite for Nina’s headstone as it’s the same material she’d like for a kitchen revamp – but Barnz doesn’t treat them any differently from occasions when Claire is feeling maudlin, or angry, or reflective. Yes, Claire is in some ways emotionally numb (if not physically so), but not to the extent that she’s operating on the same level at all times. But Barnz hits a plateau early on and rarely makes any attempt to aim any higher.

Rating: 5/10 – saved from being completely off-putting by Aniston’s intense, award-worthy performance, Cake is a movie that struggles with its own premise and never gets off the ground; occasionally heartfelt but mostly sterile in nature, it’s a movie that holds too much back in terms of its narrative to be successful.