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Review: 'Cake' strands a de-prettied Jennifer Aniston in a one-note dirge

Cake

Jennifer Aniston plays an unhappy woman dealing with tragedy and her own sourness Cinelou Releasing

‘Cake’
Director:
Daniel Barnz
Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

In “Cake,” Jennifer Aniston engages in a mothworn cliche, de-prettying herself for awards — or, as it turned out, mostly awards buzz. It’s a craven career move, especially as she’s already proven her chops by simply being good in “The Good Girl” and “Friends with Money.” But an actorly stunt is the least of “Cake”’s problems. A sour, one-note dirge, it mistakes unrelenting self-pity for honesty, stewing in the pain of someone stewing in pain, and as oblivious to the misery of others as its self-involved, blinkered protagonist.

Aniston’s Claire is in pain, equal parts psychological and physical. Her face is riddled with bulging scars; what appears to be a long period of inactivity — brought on by mega-chronic back pain — has ballooned her into a doughy figure. Her personality has taken the real toll: She’s brittle and sarcastic, introduced mocking the fellow members of a support group after one of them (Anna Kendrick) jumped off a bridge. Yet the woman’s suicide haunts Claire, both in the form of obnoxious and ill-considered visits from her ghost and in causing her to worm her way into the life of her widower, played with touching reticence by the usually undertapped Sam Worthington.

Most movies would have them slip into a romance, then wait for Claire to blurt out who she really is. To its credit “Cake” doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do anything. It’s a movie defined by what it doesn’t do, not what it does, but that turns out to be very little. It keeps driving itself into walls, then stalling rather than finding an alternate route out. Claire is careless, even casually racist to Silvana, her wet blanket of a Mexican nurse (Adriana Barraza). But the film doesn’t know what to do with this subplot, much less Silvana herself, who remains a minority stereotype — undefined, unknowable, there to cart around the wafer thin storyline just as she chaffeurs around Claire whenever she needs it.

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Aniston works vulnerability into her caustic character. She’s too physically weak to ever hate, which is itself a problem: every time she seems to have gone too far into unlikability, her back pain crops up, or we learn just a little bit more about the unimaginable accident/tragedy that destroyed her life — a pointless narrative striptease that leads to a anticlimax, on top of some unearned sympathy. “Cake” pretends to be brutally honest when its faults are all to clear to see.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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