TIFF 2014: Cake – Film Review

Director: Daniel Barnz
Actors: Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, Felicity Huffman, Sam Worthington
Writer: Patrick Tobin
Country: USA
Runtime: 98 min
Rating: 14A

As a film enthusiast, I always enjoy when an actor of whom I am not a particular fan delivers a surprisingly powerful performance. Director Daniel Barnz’s film Cake (2014) stars Jennifer Aniston in the lead role as a woman struggling to deal with the suicide of a fellow member of her chronic pain support group. Although I had my doubts as to her ability to pull off such a difficult roll, I am thrilled to state that Aniston stunned me with her raw delivery of a tough woman dealing with challenges that few can even begin to imagine. Not only was I able to believe in this character, but I was able to imagine her pain as well, and Aniston’s performance is definitely the high point of this film that may have its share of flaws but remains effective nonetheless.

Protagonist Claire (Aniston) clearly has her own fair share of problems. Struggling to deal with debilitating pain, disfigurement, and divorce after a horrifying accident, the last thing that Claire needs in her life is the added trauma of the suicide of former therapy-group member Nina (Anna Kendrick). As Claire struggles to come to terms with this loss while facing the challenges of her everyday, she is helped by her exceptionally generous housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza), and also begins to form a bond with Nina’s former husband (Sam Worthington). Investigating Nina’s suicide may not be able to bring her back, but it does begin to help Claire come to terms with her own heartbreak and commence the very slow yet potent healing process.

As aforementioned, Aniston greatly impresses in the film’s lead role, and it is almost as though the physical disfigurement of the character that she portrays has transfigured this actress as well. Claire is deeply troubled and severely caustic, especially when set beside the angelic Silvana, but it is difficult to blame her for her attitude. Aniston crafts a character that begins as fragile but grows in strength, and has an audience rooting for her every step of the way. Claire should, for all intents and purposes, be an unlikeable individual, but Aniston is able to imbue her with a certain genuine quality that forces us to care.

One aspect of this film of which I was not a fan were the hallucinations that Claire often had of Nina throughout. These exchanges seemed set up and forced in a film that is full of raw, real, visceral pain, and the foray into fantasy simply felt unnecessary. Overall, the screenplay is sharp and searing, the only exceptions being these instances where Nina appears and the focus on Claire is momentarily lost. The conclusion wherein the titular cake comes into play also did not win me over, as I felt as though a precious and slightly contrived ending was not the best way to close a dark film, and that an uplifting conclusion could still have been achieved in another manner.

A depiction of pain should be difficult to watch. Cake is a film that represents the effects of chronic pain and is therefore full of moments of discomfort, but also has its fair share of hope hidden within it as well. Overall, this film feels genuine, and achieves a balance between effectiveness and accessibility. It is Aniston’s career-changing performance that will leave people talking, however, and just may change a few minds in regards to her ability – this critic’s included.