I can usually handle a pain-filled story if there’s a touch of transcendence in there somewhere. In the case of “Cake,” a glum yarn about a woman enduring excruciating physical and mental pain, that transcendence is provided by Jennifer Aniston in the sort of soul-ripping performance we’ve never seen from her.
Claire Bennett is middle aged but moves like an old lady. The scars on her face suggest she’s been through a lot, and as the movie progresses we’ll discover that not all her maladies are physical. You get the feeling that she’s always had a dark, sardonic streak and that whatever has happened to her has kicked this into overdrive.
Early in this film from director Daniel Barnz, Claire rips up other members of her support group for their simpering responses to the suicide of one of their members. The woman in question, Claire notes, took a header off a freeway overpass, landed in the bed of a truck and was not discovered until said vehicle had returned to its home base in Mexico, making things even more complicated for her survivors. She made her escape, sure, but at what cost to those she left behind? Way to go.
Her caustic attitude extends to just about everyone in her life, not that there are that many of them. She’s mean to her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer) and support group facilitator (Felicity Huffman). She’s brusque with her ex-husband (Chris Messina) and especially with her soulful housekeeper (Adriana Barraza), the sort of person who is almost too forgiving of the faults of others.
Patrick Tobin’s screenplay lacks a strong narrative. Mostly it provides vignettes of Claire’s troubled life as he (rather parsimoniously) deals out the facts about how she came to this sad state.
The crisis here comes when Claire is visited by the ghost of her suicidal friend (Anna Kendrick) and decides to pay a visit to the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and child. Maybe she’ll be able to make some sense of her life. Their lives.
I’m guessing we’re to view the ghost as metaphorical rather than literal. In either case, it’s a rather creaky device.
But at rock bottom this is a case of an actress outshining her material. “Cake” may feel a bit too carefully assembled for credibility, but Aniston’s furious, desperate performance rings true.