There’s nothing wrong with Cake’s setup. Screenwriter Patrick Tobin has written a story about a wealthy woman recovering from severe injuries and living with chronic pain. The script has a refreshing take on the expectation that sick people should be good sports, and fit a pat, inspirational narrative about the blessings of illness. But the way the story is told, with symbols, dream sequences, flashbacks, and coy withholding, makes that setup manipulative and overdetermined. It tries too hard, without being as deep as it thinks.
Former lawyer Claire (Jennifer Aniston) had a mysterious accident that left her badly scarred in face and body. Now she lives in a world of cranky dependency and pill addiction. Her only companion is her Mexican maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whom she treats with a mixture of imperious impatience and frayed-nerve apologetics. Claire has driven away her husband Jason (Chris Messina) and has been fired by her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer). Living in a haze of opiates chased by white wine and self-pity, Claire is haunted by Nina (Anna Kendrick), a woman from her support group who committed suicide. Claire befriends Nina’s widow (Sam Worthington), and they begin a wary, prickly friendship.
Nina repeatedly shows up as a hallucination, presented in a bluntly literal way. Unlike John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, where a similar ghost-vision is presented in such a visceral, destabilizing way that it calls the protagonist’s sanity into question, Nina is flatly present to jumpstart Claire’s journey and explain the title of the film. Similarly, director Daniel Barnz sets up certain images that recur throughout the film: Claire lying in the lowered passenger seat of her SUV as Silvana drives her around town; Claire pulling back a painting in her hallway to grab a hidden pill bottle; wind chimes, and the green water of Claire’s swimming pool. Instead of establishing the film’s world, these images seem transparently symbolic, like something from an amateurish short story. The script withholds information about Claire’s accident, and when the reveal finally comes, it doesn’t provide catharsis or empathy, so much as a sense of having been led around by the nose.
Claire and Silvana’s relationship takes up the majority of Cake. Silvana is a stereotype, the helpful immigrant maid ready with the rosary beads when things get tough, but Barraza conveys a sense that Silvana is thinking far more than she lets herself say. Claire makes Silvana drive her to Tijuana in search of painkillers, potentially jeopardizing Silvana’s status in America. Cake realizes Claire’s behavior is appalling, but without providing enough insight into Silvana’s reaction, a disappointment considering her huge presence in the film. When she finally goes off on a rant, entirely in Spanish, it’s one of the film’s only earned moments of catharsis.
None of Cake’s problems lie in Aniston’s performance. The tendency to list The Good Girl as evidence of her acting chops is dismissive of her clear comedic gifts; valuing dramatic performances more than comedic ones reveals the industry’s skewed value system. Aniston actually gave one of her best performances in The Break-Up, combining pathos, humor, and sharp intelligence. In Cake, she brings a kind of flinty hardness to Claire, an irresistible drive toward nastiness and the cynical side-eye. She weaves chronic pain into her performance so it feels lived-in and experienced, not a matter of imposed tics.
But Cake represents a missed opportunity, among the clamor of symbolism and image-repetition, to address the fact that many of Claire’s problems come because she’s so fortunate. Most people struggling with chronic pain don’t have cushy health insurance, a driver, and a maid. People tolerate Claire’s behavior because she’s so fortunate. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, or telling a story about a rich person. But when that story has the messy outside world pressing in on it, and it ignores all that potentially rich tension and conflict to focus on one person’s journey of self-discovery, it grates. The Tijuana pharmacist asks Claire, when discussing how to get the pills back over the border, “You’re a rich white woman. Have you ever been caught at anything?” That really is the question, the one the film doesn’t care to examine.