Film review: Cake - the one where Jennifer Aniston feels sorry for herself

Jennifer Aniston doing serious acting

Cert 15 | ★☆☆☆☆

Since Friends, Jennifer Aniston has gone on to build a successful, if not groundbreaking, career as a commercially bankable but critically patronised American sweetheart. But she wants more. She wants respect. She wants awards. She wants – whisper it – to do a McConaughey.
Cake isn’t Aniston politely asking to be taken seriously. It’s her getting on down on her knees – eyes brimming with tears, voice quivering – and begging. It’s painful to watch. Really, really painful.
The blame doesn’t lie squarely with her. Screenwriter Patrick Tobin has summoned a devilishly unsympathetic character in Claire Bennet, an LA lawyer struggling with the emotional and physical effects of a serious car accident. Shuffling from support group to physiotherapy session to luxury villa, Claire's treatment of those around her ranges from aggressive to passive-aggressive. As a result, pretty much everyone in her life has given up on her, apart from her saintly housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza). When Claire runs out of painkillers, Silvana drives across the border to get some more. When the married gardener visits for some joyless sex, Silvana says nothing. All the while, Claire is plagued by hallucinations of a woman from the support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), who recently committed suicide.
We don’t find out about the accident till quite a way into the film, so you spend the first half an hour wondering what on earth has brought on such oceanic levels of mopiness. When I did find out, I felt a bit guilty for not being more sympathetic – and then annoyed for being guilt-tripped. On the one hand Cake extols a pro-honesty, “it’s okay to feel that way” message, but on the other it withholds and deploys information in a manipulative way. In other words, it has its sanctimonious cake while self-righteously demanding to eat it.
Even worse, it follows a worrying trend common among Young Adult fiction adaptations in using child death as a shortcut to emotional catharsis, a tactic objectionable on both moral and aesthetic grounds – moral because it’s exploitative, aesthetic because it’s cheating. What does it say about our culture that the only way we can be made to feel is by looking at children dying?
It’s a measure of Aniston’s failure that despite all the terrible things that happen to Claire, it’s impossible to feel anything but annoyance toward her. And if by some Mother Theresa feat of compassion you do take Claire to heart, it’s because of what happened to her before the film and not because of anything the erstwhile Friends actress does during it.
Before I saw Cake, Aniston was pretty far down the list of actors I’d have chosen to watch mope for two hours. Now I’ve seen her do it, she’s dropped even further down that list. Sorry folks but there’s no serious actor waiting to break out from behind that prom queen smile. Just one desperate to be taken seriously.
If Cake was an episode of friends it would be called “The One With The Mountain of Self-Pity”. If it were an actual cake it would be both nauseatingly soggy and inedibly dry. To continue the baking analogy, I’ve had a better time scraping coagulated flour out of a sieve using a knackered washing up brush. Cake wants to be a thoughtful study of pain, but instead it just induces it.

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