Director: Daniel Barnz
Major Players: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Sam Worthington
Out Of Five: 3
When it came to this year’s Oscar snubs, Selma got all the attention. But one piece of acting expected to get a nod for Best Actress came from Jennifer Aniston in Cake. After all, she’d been nominated by both the Golden Globes and SAG, so the Academy would follow suit, right? Wrong. But as a bid to be taken more seriously as an actress, it’s something of a winning performance.
Claire (Aniston) suffers from chronic pain – she winces at every movement and the agony has made her difficult to live with. She belongs to a support group for others with the same condition, but her attitude is so negative she’s kicked out. One of the other members has committed suicide and Claire becomes increasingly fascinated by the idea, thinking it might be the best way out for her too.
The early moments, set within the support group, take you up a blind alley. It looks like the film’s a black comedy, given the saccharine leader’s attempts to choose her words far too carefully and the bitter monologue from Claire about the group member who killed herself. She’s honest to the point of brutality about all the gory details, finishing off with an angry, “Way to go, Nina!” It’s no wonder they kick her out.
But a comedy it is not, despite moments of bleak humour. Instead, we’re taken on a journey through the darkest phase of Claire’s recovery, learning early on the extent of her physical damage: she has scars on her face and body, every movement is painful, she constantly downs painkillers and finds it hard to sleep. The reason doesn’t become apparent until much later in the film – I won’t spoil it – and, given her physical and emotional agony, it’s no wonder she’s bitchy, bad tempered and generally angry. And alone.
Her fascination with Nina’s suicide also translates into a fixation with the husband she left behind (Sam Worthington) and their little boy. She becomes a regular visitor and it’s almost as if they’re a new family for her. Except he’s never liked her and it’s yet another transitional phase.
The original script for Cake came to the attention of its director by winning a competition and, indeed, it comes across like it’s been written by a promising and talented film student who needs to get some more experience under their belt. While Claire’s character is reasonably well drawn – and well fleshed out by Aniston – there are aspects of the film which are less than satisfactory. Easily the worst is Nina who, although dead, follows Claire around as a ghost played by Anna Kendrick. It’s a thankless role and an unconvincing and horribly clumsy way of expressing some of the thoughts going through Claire’s mind. A more experienced writer would have found another way, probably through the dialogue, without the need for an extra character. The cake of the title appears towards the end of the film and is a tenuous analogy: while it does mark something of a turning point for Claire, I’m not convinced it’s significant enough to be the title.
As you’ll have gathered, the film is all about its central character and Aniston is hardly ever off the screen. So how good is she? She’s very good – and the film would fall apart if she wasn’t. She wears prosthetic scars, little make up, her hair doesn’t look like it’s washed very often and her clothes are grey and baggy – for comfort, not style. There are certain things she does really well – the stiff walk, the tentative movements to minimise the pain. She never drives and lies flat in her car while being chauffeured around by her housekeeper yet, despite having to look at the sky all the time, can still give directions including which the roads to avoid because they’re bumpy and more painful.
On the way home after the screening, it dawned on me that her performance was better than I’d originally thought. We drove over an especially uneven part of Waterloo Bridge, and my mind immediately flashed back to the shots of her lying on her back in the car and wincing. She’d stuck in my mind and I hadn’t realised.
Based on that, there’s more than enough in Aniston’s performance to indicate that she can cut it in serious roles and hopefully she’ll get more parts like this. As for the film, although it’s being shown on the big screen, it’s a small story and one that would have worked just as well, if not better, on TV. Cake really doesn’t cut it as a feature film.
Cake is released in cinemas around the UK from Friday, 20 February.