In Cake, Jennifer Aniston gets seriously unglamorous as Claire, a mouthy, druggy, non-practicing lawyer with a mysteriously scarred face who’s driven around Los Angeles by her Mexican housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza) — her Sancho Panza — with her seat tilted all the way back to give her only a view of trees and sky. Her morbid bluntness gets her bounced from a touchy-feely women’s therapy group; and her fascination with Nina, a group member who threw herself off a highway overpass, gets her haunted by Nina’s hostile ghost (Anna Kendrick). Said ghost becomes even more antagonistic when Claire shows up at the doorstep of Nina’s grieving, hunky spouse (Sam Worthington) and curly haired 5-year-old (Evan O’Toole), as if trying to replace what she lost — and also be a replacement. There are broad hints about the nature of the tragedy that deformed Claire’s body and soul, but it’s late in the film before the full picture emerges. It’s a really grim one.
Actually, the whole movie is grim — drearily so, though I confess to a preconceived notion of how its script would play. I was on a Nantucket Film Festival jury that gave its top prize to Patrick Tobin for this screenplay, which made me laugh from its first page to almost its last. On the page, Claire was in the gonzo tradition of hell-raising addicts with nothing left to lose, and the tragedy of her life wasn’t on the surface — it slowly bubbled up from below. I admit that critics aren’t always the best screenplay readers, being used to judging the finished products, and that another judge — a strikingly nice and intelligent young actress known for both starring in a family musical and engaging in novel sexual acts on premium cable — had reservations about the predictable arc. But I was sure that with the right actress Cake would kill.
I still am — and Aniston might have been that actress. Her instincts in Friends were dead perfect, but the problem with comic stars who tackle serious, Oscar-bait roles is that they tend to downplay their gifts. So the hot, funny woman drabs herself down and dulls her timing. What’s missing is the attack. I do love the morbid croakiness of her voice and the tentative way she lurches up and down steps, as if every bone has been shattered. There’s even something fascinating about how far she goes to make you forget the tanned, toned sexpot of countless magazine covers, as if it’s a treat to be able to look like a leading actress’s — and her stylist’s — worst nightmare. Aniston is all there in the final scenes, though they’d have been so much more wrenching if she hadn’t been so glum from the get-go.
It would have helped if the director, Daniel Barnz, had trusted the script’s screwball tone instead of pacing Cake for maximum pathos. At speeds this draggy, the script’s checks and balances to keep Silvana from seeming as if her mistress’s well-being is her chief reason to exist fall away. Even with an angry, assimilated American daughter who warns her mother against being a loyal ethnic sidekick to a rich white lady, Silvana comes off like ... a loyal ethnic sidekick to a rich white lady. And whose idea was it to cut my favorite line in the screenplay? It’s when Claire and Silvana go to Mexico for still more meds and bump into Silvana’s patronizing old friends, whom Claire sees through despite her lack of Spanish, explaining, “I speak the language of cunt fluently.” Only Kendrick’s bitch-ghost cuts through the fog of futility.
It’s possible I’m being harder on Cake than I’d be without prior knowledge, though the general lack of critical enthusiasm (and that Oscar snub!) suggest otherwise. Let me step back and say a lot of Tobin’s wit still comes through, and that the movie’s final shot is hard to resist. This Cake isn’t fallen. It’s just a bit deflated.
*This article appears in the January 26, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.