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Cake | Review

Let Them Have It: Barnz Banks on Adept Aniston

Cake Daniel Barnz PosterGrief is a prickly emotion to convey within the confines of the indie American melodrama, a place that audiences have come to expect a certain amount of imaginable tragedy causing rippling aftershocks for its protagonist that force him or her to grow once more into a healed, even enlightened being. Along the way, a checklist of unlikely supporting cast mates imbue these reflections on coping with a sense of wishful thinking—we want these heroes and heroines of life’s harsh blows to have access to magical members of disenfranchised, socio-economically compromised denizens to guide them through a series of growing pains so that it’s possible to get right back to where they started from. If this sounds familiar, then you’ll be able to plug into the familiarity of Cake from director Daniel Barnz, which unfortunately feels more like the boxed version of the eponymous confection. Caught up in a late-staged whirlwind of Oscar campaigning for star Jennifer Aniston, which wasn’t quite successful, it’s refreshing to see the talented actress working outside the studio system in a performance that stands out as one of her best to date. Unfortunately, the rest of the film feels like one big, bland pity-party.

Blearily attending a chronic pain support group currently thrown into emotional turmoil after the suicide of attending member Nina (Anna Kendrick), Claire Bennett’s (Aniston) tactless response results in a request for her to find another group that can better deal with her anger issues, or so she’s informed telephonically by the prim moderator (Felicity Huffman). Fascinated with Nina’s decision, Claire begins to correspond with imaginary Nina in-between bouts of popping painkillers rather than focus on the physical therapy necessary to heal her mangled body, the result of an accident we learn bits and pieces about as the film goes on. Looking out for Claire is her staunchly supportive Mexican servant Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who has put her own life on hold to support her neglectful but friendly employer. Without anyone else to turn to, Claire’s fascination with Nina brings her to the stoop of the dead woman’s home, where she meets her grieving husband, Roy (Sam Worthington).

Barnz has a penchant for crippling melodrama, as evidenced in previous features like 2012’s Never Back Down, or to a lesser degree in his 2008 debut Phoebe in Wonderland. Though it makes a plaintive case to steep us in sympathetic balms as concerns the generally unlikeable Claire, Patrick Tobin’s screenplay falters in its assessment of nearly all the supporting cast members, particularly the kindly and likeable Silvana, played warmly by Adriana Barraza. A tense interaction in Tijuana with two frenemies from Silvana’s past only highlights how much more interesting this narrative could have been if told from her perspective. As seen through the eyes of contemptuous Claire, who may be difficult to like but not unnecessarily so, Cake is an underwhelmingly privileged yarn that tries way too hard to build pathos around her character through repetitive interactions with the apparition of Kendrick’s deceased persona, which reaches a contrived crescendo when Claire removes herself from the table at a restaurant to yell at an empty booth occupied by a slice of pie.

Convenient and clichéd, with characters portrayed by known faces like Mamie Gummer, Lucy Punch, Chris Messina, Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, they float around in the effluvia of Claire’s broken universe as subtly as each ragged searing pang from her gnarled, lacerated body. Surely, this stands as Aniston’s most emotive performance since her 2002 career best turn in The Good Girl, but it flies into the zeitgeist with all the aplomb of a sticky gimmick—the Hollywood beauty appears without makeup! But it’s hard to let that sink in when she’s all mussed up with the external scars from an accident that has tragically changed her. At times gently moving, considering how Barnz manages to get some convincing moments from Sam Worthington, Cake isn’t as flavorful as one would hope, but it isn’t without a certain degree of levity.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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