On the surface Cake is your traditional independent feature. It has some big names attached, but a director that is relatively unknown, unless writing his own projects, and a writer with no real credits beyond this film. It’s one of the lucky independent films because it has a cast that will ensure that people will see the film. When they do, they will be delightfully surprised at the simplistic, raw, honesty of it all. The funny thing is, initially, people hear about Cake because of the supposed bravery that comes with Jennifer Aniston giving a makeup free performance.
To be quite honest, I went into Cake knowing that Aniston was in it sans makeup, and that she was nominated for awards for her performance. I’ve not always been the biggest fan of her work. I don’t normally enjoy Rom-Coms, and Friends really wasn’t my cup of tea, so my viewing preferences didn’t match up to her body of work. I quickly learned, by watching Cake, that Anniston is actually a highly competent actress. She is a breath of fresh air in this stifling environment, and she proves that sometimes the best thing for an actress is a change of environment. To say this film was the best performance of her career would be an understatement. While Aniston has had consistent work, over the years, this feels like the first time I’ve really seen her. Offering a raw, stripped bare performance, you easily dislike and empathize with her character. Like life, she is both refreshing for her honesty, and heavy for her reality.
Aniston plays Claire Bennett, and we meet her after her life has fallen apart. Her marriage is on the verge of ending, after a car accident kills her son, and leaves her injured and in constant pain. The film begins about six months into her healing, at a support group for Chronic Pain sufferers. The group, led by Annette (Felicity Huffman), is discussing the recent suicide of a group member, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick). Collins, a wife and mother, could no longer handle her pain issues, so she threw herself off of a freeway overpass. Bennett quickly shows her unsympathetic nature by discussing the grisly details of the suicide, and subsequently being kicked out of the group.
Oddly enough, the suicide seems to be a sort of catalyst for Bennett. She becomes obsessed with the event, and Nina, herself. She visits her husband (Sam Worthington), to learn more about Nina, and her life. She even begins to see Nina, as she contemplates her own path, down that road. Kendrick is a delightfully honest ghost, forcing Bennett to see how things really are. She never shies away from calling her the names that she should be called, and she even attempts to help her commit suicide, when Bennett lacks the ability to do it, herself. We quickly learn that Bennett’s pain comes from a car accident that has left her childless. Her young son has died, and she ended up with severe pain, physically and emotionally, from this accident. While she should physically be getting better, she tends to rely more on heavy amounts of painkillers, wine, and random sex, to numb the pain, though it leaves her in limbo.
Nina’s suicide, in some way, signifies the need for a change, and allows us to watch this phase in her life, where she contemplates giving up or getting better. Perhaps even more poignant is the way that the supporting cast supports Aniston’s performance, or the way that Bennett pulls their strings, forcing them to be in limbo, as well. Two of the best examples of this come first, with her assistant, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who does everything for her, including driving her around. Barraza is that faithful, loving mother some of us have never had. She attempts to help Bennett heal, and her sense of loss is evident, when she doesn’t know how to help her. When Silvana finally blows up, the scene is as refreshing as it is lovely, mirroring the frustration we also undoubtedly feel at the selfish, self-centered, Bennett. Second, in a bit part, Mamie Gummer plays Bonnie, Bennett’s physical therapist. She makes it clear that while Bennett should be getting better, she’s not, and perhaps she is holding herself back. Her frustration is also quite evident, and though we see little of her, the part helps emphasize how deep this problem runs.
We only begin to truly sympathize with Bennett when Leonard (William H. Macy) shows up and it becomes clear that he is the man that ruined her life. The confrontation between these two is both heartbreaking and empowering. It is necessary for both characters to have this confrontation, in order for both of them to move on, though it is extremely difficult to watch, despite its necessity.
More than anything, Cake shows us real life. It has its ups and downs, and it contains plenty of characters you want to punch in the face. Like I said, it’s like life. It also shows us that for some actresses, the best roles do come after 30. Aniston shows us that the best thing anyone can hope for is a change of pace. While so many of the Friends have remained stuck in that bubble, Rachel Green is nowhere to be seen in this performance, and that, perhaps, is the best and most refreshing part, of all. Aniston deserves all of the nominations she has received, and though her winning may be a long shot, hopefully, she will take this as a hint to the types of roles she should be playing.