Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Cake is a study of grief that drowns in a cold bath of grim self-pity. It introduces the prickly, disheveled Claire (Jennifer Aniston) at a workshop for chronic-pain sufferers, where she's pressed to talk about the recent suicide of a group member named Nina (Anna Kendrick). Their leader (Felicity Huffmann) seems infuriatingly certain that her processing formula will allow the group to efficiently dispense with feelings as complex as the shock of losing a colleague to a temptation many are wrestling with themselves. In the face of that programmatic, bullying "empathy," Claire's sardonic defiance reads like heroic truth-telling. But as the film drags on, the character's brusque insistence on speaking her mind is almost always applied to undeserving targets, like her still loving and supportive ex-husband (Chris Messina) or her saintly housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whose empathy floods every scene she's in, setting Claire's chilly self-absorption into even sharper relief. In time, Claire's behavior begins to read as the bitterness of an entitled person who doesn't much care how her actions affect anyone else.
The script treats the event that left Claire in this state as a mystery, coyly delaying the reveal until long after it's become obvious, but there's never any doubt about the brittle state she's in. Intense, relentless physical and emotional agony and massive doses of pain meds have left her wan, tight-lipped, stony-faced, and always slightly unkempt. Aniston sits and moves stiffly, as if trapped inside an invisible suit of armor; at night, she shifts restlessly in bed, showing how the pills Claire takes by the fistful fail to keep her pain at bay. But that finely detailed portrayal is marooned in a film that doesn't know what to do with it, as none of Claire's relationships with other people feel real. That may be intended as a symptom of her alienation, but it only succeeds in alienating us as we follow her through a series of encounters with people who barely register as individuals with thoughts and feelings of their own.
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