Sometimes it is really obvious when a film’s intentions are not as advertised. For example, Cake tries to portray itself as a hard look at an often misunderstood disability: chronic pain. However, the film is clearly meant to be an award-baiting vehicle by which usually-comedic actress Jennifer Aniston can try to garner some credibility though a portrayal of a suffering woman. The disingenuousness of the film’s motives are more readily apparent than in most award bait, as the film does not even seem to understand the hardship it portrays, much less have anything meaningful to say about it.
Aniston plays Claire, a woman suffering from chronic pain who develops a morbid fascination with the suicide of a fellow support group member. Claire then spends the majority of the film contemplating suicide, as her pain seems to reach a point of unbearability. As she develops a relationship with the widower of the woman who killed herself (and has psychotic delusions of that woman’s ghost taunting her), Claire’s past starts to come into focus, revealing a tragedy which emotionally pains her as much as her physical pain. To those who suffer chronic pain or know someone who does, that last sentence may spell out to you the film’s biggest problem: Claire’s chronic pain is impliedly symptomatic of her emotional trauma, which is an entirely fallacious analysis of how chronic pain effects people. At the very least, it muddies the waters: If the point was to explore the issue of chronic pain, why equally emphasize an emotional trauma? If the point was to provide a character study of an emotionally tormented woman, then why make the chronic pain angle the film’s selling point? At best, this makes the film thematically confusing; at worst, it makes the film an offense to the people it claims to represent.
It doesn’t help that Claire is a purposely offensive character. She is rude and crass to everyone, even those actively trying to help her, and she only lets up when she thinks it will serve her needs, usually to get more pain medication. This has the effect of reducing Claire’s entire personality to one entirely centered on her relationship to her pain. She has no life or hobbies to speak of, nor does she appear to even have a job. Her entire identity is couched in her chronic illness, which is a rather dehumanizing portrayal. This is only made worse by Aniston’s overacting, riddled with loud moans and cursing so as to almost make the performance unintentionally comical, were it not for the offensive undertones implicit in the character’s very conception.
The film has further problems in its portrayal of Claire’s housekeeper, Silvana. Claire is almost nothing but nasty and brutish to her overworked and underpaid facsimile of a nursemaid, and Silvana takes all the abuse with only one self-defensive outburst in the film’s climax, which is quickly “resolved” without any reason beyond saintly forgiveness. The film demonstrates how Silvana sacrifices her time, energy and family life to act as Claire’s glorified chauffeur, even going so far as to smuggle drugs from Mexico, but never gives her an adequate reason to take the abuse. This is the docile houseservant trope taken to its most offensive extremes, effectively making Silvana a plot convenience to drive Claire from scene to scene and conveying the non-stop verbal abuse Claire visits upon her as entirely justifiable through her docility.
Cake is a film that is clearly trying, but it aspires to the wrong goals. Instead of focusing on an often poorly represented aspect of human suffering and building a smart and considerate story to bring focus on that issue, Cake opts instead to start with the concept of providing Jennifer Aniston a platform to prove to the world how she too can be a dramatic actress, then assembles the supporting pieces without care or consideration, even to the performance that acts as the film’s raison d’etre. This is a bad movie. Don’t see it.
Does Jennifer Aniston have what it takes to move beyond her sitcom-friendly comedic routine? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.