The star system might not have the power it once did in Hollywood (one need only look at the number of Nicolas Cage movies that haven’t even hit theaters in recent years for proof of that), but it still has some pull when a project has awards potential. While someone like Jennifer Aniston might not be able to get multimillion dollar nonsense greenlit with her name/haircut quite as easily as she used to, if she’s willing to look drab and emote in an indie, that sucker will get made purely for awards campaigning. Enter ‘Cake’, a movie that exists exclusively for that reason. It definitely doesn’t have much else going for it like, you know, quality.
A makeup-free Aniston stars as the deeply depressed Claire Bennett in this cinematic slice of pandering. To describe Claire as cold and bitchy would do a disservice to cold bitchy women everywhere. Nope, she’s a cartoon of a sad person, a walking frown who delights in alienating everyone in her life. She has the excuse of a recent car accident that left her scarred for life (in every conceivable way) and in constant pain. For the first half hour or so, we see her get kicked out of a support group for jerkiness, refused service from her physical therapist for similar reasons, and ripped apart by her ex-husband (fun!). The only person who shows Claire any kindness is her maid (Adriana Barraza), who sticks by her for god knows what reason, even driving her across the border into Mexico to get some sweet, sweet illegal painkillers.
Of course, that’s the sort of downbeat opening that only exists for redemptive arcs, right? Don’t worry, there’s a big ol’ one of those coming. It kicks off with the recent suicide of a support group member (a cameo by Anna Kendrick) that brings all sorts soul-searching guilt. Then redemption really kicks into high gear when Claire starts visiting Kendrick’s ex-husband (Sam Worthington, the man who brought all of that subtle realism to ‘Avatar’). Hmmm, what could possibly happen next?
First, I suppose it should be noted that Jennifer Aniston is pretty good in the movie. Her character is harsh and lost in a way that will seem fresh to anyone who didn’t see Aniston star in the vastly superior ‘The Good Girl’. There are times when the vanity-free actress even might convince you that she’s playing something resembling a real person. Thankfully, the maudlin script by Patrick Tobin and dreary direction by Daniel Barnz pop that bubble before it becomes much of a concern. Any attempts at dark comedy to subvert the melodramatic core are quickly extinguished after a few minutes. Instead, the filmmakers focus on slowly doling out flashbacks that reveal everything audiences already figured out about the backstory at a tedious rate. Conversations are shared between Aniston and Kendrick’s ghost/memory to ensure that no character growth can occur without an irritating monologue. And then there’s Worthington’s nice guy, who is there purely for reverse gender arm-candy to remind you that Aniston is still a pretty lady and love conquers all and blah-blah-blah…
The major flaw in ‘Cake’ is simply that we’ve seen this all before far too many times. These sorts of Grinch-makes-good, finding-happiness-after-tragedy tales are a dime a dozen during awards season. ‘Cake’ is just the latest in a never-ending line of the same movie getting endlessly remade, and it’s not even a particularly good example of the tiresome genre. It certainly doesn’t offer viewers any fun or reason to buy a ticket, nor will it move anyone with an even vague understanding of how adult lives work. It’s misery porn with a pandering emotional arc and symbolism so obvious that you can decode it from a neighboring theater.
The lone watchable element in the film is Aniston’s performance, which already got her that coveted Golden Globe nomination before the movie even entered wide release. Thankfully, failure to also nab an Oscar nomination means that ‘Cake’ can go away and vanish into obscurity now.