"Cake" takes us into the darkly funny world of Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston) who initiates a dubious relationship with a widower (Sam Worthington) while confronting fantastical hallucinations of his dead wife (Anna Kendrick). With her feisty housekeeper-come-caretaker (Adriana Barraza) ever at her side, Claire searches for human connection and self-forgiveness in this tale of personal redemption.
Jennifer Aniston, after years of playing the stoic romantic lead, has finally ventured out of her safe zone for the most defining character of her career. Shirking her usual beauty, Aniston plays a woman who is aged, battered, crippled and an emotional mess. Her face is loaded with bags, her arms are rich with scars and her mind is in shambles. She slips into the role with an ease that is both human and relatable for being so far out her usual range. Even when the storyline of Cake falters from its overused dramatic cliches, Aniston is always on point and never breaks the illusion of a deeply damaged woman.
Her character is Claire Bennet, a woman still recovering from a car accident that took her son. Her healing process is both mental and physical, but one is easier to mask than the other. In group therapy, she’s a sneering mess of inappropriate condescending, bittered by the world that she seems to have long since lost hope for. She cares little for the group and is more interested in pushing buttons than repairing herself. During her water therapy, however, she cusses up a storm for her chronic pain that appears to have no end. With little improvement in either area of her grief, she’s adrift in a sea of nihilism. Cue the traumatic event and individuals that make her find some hope left in humanity. And, oh, does it adhere all too well to the usual patterns from Claire talking to ghosts to Claire trying do good for another little boy.
But Aniston never lets such a story allow her to pull back. She throws herself into the role of Claire so forcefully it makes you wonder if she actually experienced pain similar to her character. Her body is so crippled that she can only ride in the car with her back completely flat. Her muscles are so weary that she’ll often descend into a hazy slumber for a multitude of hours. And just about any extra movement outside of walking and lying down causes her to wince and moan in unbearable pain. Claire is also rather unique in the sense that she remains a tough gal during such a miserable portion of her life. She never has a moment where she breaks down entirely with sadness or despair. Those emotions come in small bits and pieces. When she ventures into her late son’s room to search for something, she has a moment of shock and sadness at the memories which spill forth. It is not a scene where she has a massive breakdown, but one of many emotional needles that she briskly steps on to proceed with what’s left of her life.
Her only friend appears to be her living attendant Silvana, a good-natured Spanish woman who sticks by this woman through thick and thin. Claire might consider the ghost of Nina (Anna Kendrick) that haunts her visions to be her best friend, the way Nina relays her experience with suicide, but Silvana is always there for her. She’s also given a surprising amount of depth in how we don’t just see her around Claire. After a hard day of tending to the grieving woman, Silvana returns home where her adult family feels bad for her being paid so little putting up with Claire’s drama. Worn and tired, Silvana maintains that Claire is a decent person even after she tries to commit suicide. Their relationship, which is usually an artificial one in most of these dramas, has a certain bond that feels real in that the two of them never have a round of cries or a night of ice cream. Their bond is quietly made clear through their small moments of dialogue that rarely feels forced.
While Cake doesn’t exactly surprise for its script, it still astounds with its performances. As a character study, it’s an exceptional piece in how the film tries to delve deep into the mind of a woman who loses a chunk of her soul. There are quiet moments of serene depression and tough moments of raw pain. Aniston’s performance is that rare exception of an actress that is able to transcend the simplistic nature of a grief story. She not only outdoes the script, but outdoes herself as well.