There’s a solid movie somewhere within Cake, a title suggesting richer layering than what is ultimately delivered. That’s a big part of why it doesn’t work; it’s a film with such an ego that it prematurely declares its density and worth before the first scene opens. As petty as it may seem to pick on an earnestly sentimental film for its (perhaps unconsciously) pretentious title, it’s the first of many mistakes made with this ramshackle story about a ramshackle life. That, and how it will invite critics to make dessert metaphors in their reviews. I’ll do my best to refrain.
Claire (Jennifer Aniston), as each scene will have you know, is in chronic pain following a tragic car crash. Every step is a battle. She lays back in her reclined car seat, allowing for many shots of pensive tree-gazing as she’s driven around by her achingly underdeveloped Mexican housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza). Claire’s bitterness, as well as her morbid fascination with the suicide of fellow patient Nina (Anna Kendrick), has her excommunicated from a support group (led by Felicity Huffman). A stock pool boy drops by for some uncomfortable sex. She gobbles unprescribed pills (from doctor Lucy Punch) with white wine. In case you missed all that, director Daniel Barnz and writer Patrick Tobin ensure that just about every day for Claire is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad one.
Cake smacks of many genres, all of which theoretically work together. There’s dark comedy underlining most of it, plus smatters of romance and fantasy. When the lighter touches arrive (because Cake aggressively stumps for the Quirky Indie Dramedy Gold Medal), they are either underwhelming or ill-timed. Claire’s verbal abuse and profane bitterness are aimed for laughs, wind chimes appear accompanied by lens flares, and Nina’s smug ghost appears in dream sequences like a pro-suicide Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life. (Also, ukelele score, anyone?) Rachel Morrison’s shaky photography aims for docudrama, but little raw emotion is revealed. When time finally comes for sincerity, it’s too little, too late. Even Claire’s recovery is as contrived as the countless adorkable set pieces leading up to it, leaving me to wonder whether most of this movie is Claire’s hallucination. Cake is a film more concerned with sheen than soul.
Still, when Barnz and Tobin find humanity, it’s short-lived relief. Arguably the film’s emotional core, Silvana and Claire’s scenes (particularly a rant in Spanish from the former) are genuine, but too few and far between. Another attempt is made between Claire and Roy (Sam Worthington), Nina’s widower, but ultimately it serves to remind us, again, how Claire simply just can’t hold it together. Oh, and William H. Macy (!) shows up for a hot sec as the other car crash victim just to remind us how Claire hasn’t reconciled with him, either. Cake is a film more concerned with characters as plot devices than as people.
The film’s biggest ambition, perhaps, is getting Aniston, conceivably one of the most charming actresses to ever exist, to portray a miserable, miserable person. Aniston’s entire career rests on toughness; it’s a quality that made her turns in Meet the Millers, The Iron Giant, Office Space and Horrible Bosses so endearing. With Cake, we know when she’s working her hardest to make an undeserving script funny. One painful example: when visiting Nina’s grave with Roy, Claire cracks about how she’d like her countertops to be the same material as Nina’s gravestone. Only in a movie like Cake, where people inexplicably put up with Claire’s bullshit, would a grieving widower like Sam let this fly.