Angry, depressed, self-pitying and desperate to lose herself in a pharmaceutical haze: no character is more relatable this awards season than Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston), a woman simply unable to cope after a semi-recent catastrophe leaves her with chronic pain and facial and bodily disfigurement.
The movies are full of noble sufferers, but Claire refuses to be one of them. Being difficult (by being herself) is the only way she knows how to insist that she and her pain matter — and to retain a sense of self when faced with the pressure to get better and move on by everyone else’s criteria and timetable.
The film’s tortuous road to distribution aside, perhaps it’s Claire’s graceless defeatism that’s led so many to dismiss “Cake,” a thoughtful and frequently moving drama that insightfully illuminates what it’s like to live with illness and agony at least as well as last year’s other Best Actress vehicles like “Wild,” “Still Alice,” and “Two Days, One Night” do.
I’m not all that interested in speculating whether Aniston “deserved” an Oscar nod, but I believed every one of Claire’s belabored breaths and reflexive frowns. Either through Aniston’s exertions or heavy make-up, the character’s cheeks are swollen from exhausted effort. And if you’ve ever been knocked flat by overwhelming pain for an extended period of time, you know you spend a lot of time getting those chipmunk cheeks from endlessly debating whether to cry, complain or do nothing, because the first two options might not be worth the accompanying aches.
Lonely and friendless save for her kindly housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza), Claire is already barely hanging on when the youngest woman in her chronic-pain support group, Nina (a miscast Anna Kendrick), commits suicide. Claire mockingly recounts the grotesque circumstances of Nina’s death to her fellow sufferers — a move that gets her kicked out of the support group, leaving her with even more time to writhe uncomfortably in bed, unable to sleep until her unprescribed painkillers finally kick in. In dreamland, Nina gets her revenge: If Claire’s life is so intolerable, why doesn’t she stop being a coward and off herself as well?
Claire is rightly terrified of her new suicidal impulses, but what makes “Cake” so compelling — and convincing — is that she’s incapable of fixing herself. Instead, she spends her few mobile hours attempting to score more pills, even taking advantage of Silvana’s compassion by having the latter take her to a Tijuana pharmacy that doesn’t mind overlooking a missing prescription or two.
Silvana is a saint, but a plausible one. When she sees Claire’s ex-husband (Chris Messina), she doesn’t hide her affection (and probably her preference) for him in front of her employer. Patrick Tobin’s script (a Black List alum) rounds Silvana out as a woman who knows her worth, as well as an overworked immigrant with a knotty relationship to her American Dream. Barraza is simply fantastic, and she and Aniston share several moments of bittersweet poignancy.
Claire also begins visiting Nina’s widower Roy (Sam Worthington), the only other person in her life for whom rage is their default emotion. “Anger feels good,” they agree. Roy provides Claire with some much-needed male company, but their relationship evolves into something much more complex (and, again, more believable) than a straightforward romance.
Eventually, “Cake” reveals how Claire came to be left with the fat scars across her face and thighs. The answers are predictable and pedestrian, and yet director Daniel Barnz (“Won’t Back Down,” “Beastly”) uses them to guide Claire through a few wonderful moments of self-revelation. The showy “uglification” Aniston undergoes for the role has other purposes too, as when Claire’s mousy brown hair turns red and her lanky, ash-colored robes billow like jellyfish in her swimming pool, where she’s happiest. William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman turn up in small but surprisingly rewarding roles.
The lady (and the script) doth protest too much in declaring Claire an “evil witch,” but perhaps the description is worth it for the small but uncomplicatedly satisfied smile the convalescent finally gets to enjoy when she thinks nobody’s looking.