Jennifer Aniston forsakes all attempts at Hollywood glamour in “Cake.” She plays Claire, a severely wounded middle-aged woman who has suffered a great tragedy and, frankly, is just not dealing very well with it.
We don’t get the story in sequential order, but learn that Claire was the victim of a horrible car accident, which took the life of her only child, a preschool son. She barely survived; but she’s in constant pain and suffers from visible scarring over much of her body, including her face. Though she was a practicing attorney prior to the accident, now she mostly practices being caustic and vindictive to everyone who can still stand being around her. Her husband, Jason (Chris Messina), left because he couldn’t deal with somebody so morose and depressed. Claire doesn’t seem to have any other family or close friends; in fact, the only person who still cares about her is her housekeeper/former nanny, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). Silvana takes all the verbal abuse from the “señora” because she feels sorry for Claire. She drives her around while Claire lays down in the back, or in the front with the seat folded down. Claire is in pain all the time, and she frequently indulges in popping Percocet, or even Valium or hydrocodone, or maybe all three at once. She exceeds her “recommended dosage,” of course, and her solution to that is to get Silvana to drive her to Tijuana, where apparently they’re not so careful about demanding prescriptions.
Claire dutifully attends the recommended support group, but she can’t help deriding their touchy-feely process and cutting through their banal psychobabble. She’s haunted, though, by one member of the group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), who committed suicide by jumping off a highway bridge. Claire finds herself needing to visit that bridge. Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), also has little use for the fulsome platitudes of his own support group. Together, the two angry mourners find some comfort with the company of each other, but not much, because both are far too scarred and the wounds are still far too raw.
The ghost of Nina appears to Claire, sometimes mocking, sometimes questioning. Is it the drugs that are making her hallucinate, or is it her wounded psyche? Or both? Claire also cops out of her physical therapy by verbally abusing her therapist who must eventually ask her, “Do you really want to be well?” The answer to that question is the one that will really determine the future for Claire. Not to mention the attitude of everyone around her.
Jennifer Aniston is remarkable in this role, but the movie itself could hardly be more depressing. There are many moviegoers seeking some light entertainment who will happily forsake this one for something much more pleasant. But those who are willing to subject themselves to Claire’s slings and arrows will be rewarded with a memorably embattled performance.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.