It may well be a case of having approached Cake with low expectations, but I actually liked it — with some reservations. In fact, I have quite a few reservations, but I think I like it all the more because of those reservations. At least it has a personality of its own. Here we have a movie that dares to be — well, screwed up — and I can admire that even when it’s wrong. Of course, the big question hovering over any discussion of the film inevitably becomes, “Was Jennifer Aniston snubbed by the Oscars?” Maybe. It kind of depends on whether you believe anyone is “entitled” to a nomination. From Academy logic, though, you might have thought all those (rather decorously applied) scars and the general glamming-down would have counted for something.
I will say I think she’s very good in the film — and I am not really a fan. To me Aniston has always been a rather bland actress of the fresh-scrubbed girl-next-door variety — an idea her first attempt to be taken seriously, The Good Girl (2002), traded on. I mostly think of her for being in bad or forgettable movies or movies I remember for extraneous reasons — like falling asleep during Management (2008) at its premiere at the Florida Film Festival in 2007. Cake, I admit, is something different. It is neither bad nor unmemorable. Unfortunately, it is most likely to be remembered only as Aniston’s failed Best Actress bid. For that matter, I suspect it’s close to DOA because of that fact. That’s a shame, too — especially since most of us question the value of the Academy Awards, but then go right ahead and let the Academy’s whims dictate our choices.
Aniston plays Claire Bennett, a woman suffering from chronic pain, unprocessed grief, an acid-tongued sense of humor and a pretty heavy addiction to painkillers. In fact, her often brutal — and sour — sense of humor prompts the leader (Felicity Huffman) of her chronic pain support group to “suggest” Claire find another group. Making herself intolerable to anyone who tries to help her — unless she’s trying to cadge painkillers from them — is pretty much the pattern of her post-accident life. However, she has developed a fixation on a member of her group, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick), who killed herself — and this comes to be what drives the plot. Right here is where the film starts to get messy with its fantasy encounters between Claire and Nina. If you can’t buy into these, the film will sink like a stone. I mostly bought into the concept when it became apparent that Claire’s image of Nina turned the woman into a tough-talking projection of herself — and of Claire trying to convince herself of suicide as a viable option.
Other stumbling blocks abound. Some of them I actually admired — such as the film leaving the viewer to pick up key points of the events without spelling them out. Others, I could kind of just go with — like a drive-in theater running Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus (1940) for the simple economic reason of the old movie being public domain. But the business of casting “name” actors — Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Lucy Punch, Chris Messina, Mamie Gummer, even Misty Upham — in what amount to little more than cameos was a boneheaded and distracting idea. The film flirts with disaster by threatening to make Claire just plain unlikable, but it’s smart enough to give her a few grace notes — especially the scene with her housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) in a restaurant in Tijuana — to keep that at bay, if only just.
Is Cake a great picture? Oh, good heavens, no. This is a small, unassuming movie that does contain an impressive performance from Aniston — even without the nomination. That it’s the best movie Daniel Barnz has ever made says … well, nothing if you look over his dismal filmography, but he does deliver a nicely crafted, often very good-looking film here. Should you see it? Well, it’s hardly a must-see, but it’s a good — and slightly odd — little movie that’s kind of a pleasant break from the more bombastic award season offerings. Rated R for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality.