★★★ / ★★★★
Claire (Jennifer Aniston) lost her young son in a car accident and she has since suffered from chronic physical pain. Most days, she is on drugs and that makes her quite unpleasant, to say the least, to be around. When Claire learns that a member of her chronic pain support group named Nina (Anna Kendrick) committed suicide, she goes on a mission to learn more about the tragedy.
Based on the screenplay by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, “Cake” is an undercooked drama but it is uplifted for the most part by Aniston’s wry performance. Although the material does make some fresh decisions like not forging a romantic relationship between Claire and Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington), it requires more detail to become a truly engaging drama. Why is it that we do not learn a bit more about the man (William H. Macy) directly involved in the death of Claire’s son?
The first thirty minutes of the picture is independent drama at its best. It makes us wonder about Claire’s intentions, how her mind works, whether she is capable of empathy even if she is suffering a great deal. Is the reason why she is so curious about Nina the fact that the recently deceased had the courage that Claire simply does not have? Is Claire actually jealous that someone else achieved what she has fantasized about since the car accident? These are very interesting questions that are not easy to bring up and tackle directly, but this film does it with pride, respect, and class. It is true that Claire may not be the most likable character, but these questions feel right for this story—her story. I wanted to know more.
It is most disappointing then that the material begins to repeat itself just before the halfway mark. The bottom line is that the scenes which occur only in Claire’s mind or dreams communicate a mental anguish which then contribute to more physical pain. The script hammers the viewer over the head with this idea which is most unnecessary.
It is unfortunate because the supporting characters are interesting. Silvana (Adriana Barraza) is Claire’s helper and friend. A standout scene involves a trip to Tijuana and Silvana is spotted by friends from the past. Here, we get to observe Silvana and Claire’s relationship at its rawest—that even though Claire may treat Silvana like a maid at times, deep down, Claire considers Silvana to be a good friend. Another character I wanted to know more about is Claire’s ex-husband (Chris Messina). There is a sadness about him as well but the screenplay does not explore this avenue.
To create an effective drama, the details must be present and alive. It is most curious then that “Cake” often seems reluctant to dig deeply into its characters and their circumstances. Claire is grieving but grief never not isolated. Because Claire is miserable, sometimes she lashes out and this is why it is worth getting to know those around her. Claire’s story could easily have been two and a half hours long and it would likely have been much more engaging.