It's fair to say it's not Jennifer Aniston's fault that Cake is such a wishy-washy, been-there-done-that melodrama. Much-ballyhooed as the film that would finally make people take her seriously as an actress and wipe out for good any memories of Friends and of her interminable series of comedies, Cake was a latecomer to the Oscar race and its buzz was short-lived, fizzling for good when, despite a Golden Globe win, Ms. Aniston was shut out of the Best Actress nominations.
In all fairness, you don't need Cake to know she's a good actress (go look up the lightweight small-town, small-time drama The Good Girl), and as good as she is the film doesn't really go anywhere; its tale of a grieving, suicidal Angelena that's had enough of blinders and wallows in her very real pain is rather signposted narratively, somewhat tone-deaf and far too manipulative for its own good. For sure, there's a refreshing lack of reverence towards the very serious subjects it deals with: still recovering from a disastrous accident that has left her in constant pain, Claire (Ms. Aniston) pops pills and chugs down drinks like there's no tomorrow, refuses to believe in pat comforting words and generally barrels down the street with scant regard for propriety or manners.
The problem is her desperate, overly honest cynicism can come across as too brittle and rude, and while that's part of what makes Claire an interesting character, director Daniel Barnz seems unsure how far to go and turns out to either overdo or underdo it throughout. In so doing, he also fails to make any of the characters surrounding Claire to exist as real people - even her faithful Mexican maid and caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza) is a walking cliché, so underwritten as to be almost offensive.
And therein lies the rub: Cake is sympathetic to the plight of its protagonist, but so utterly unsympathetic to everyone else's issues that it becomes a well-meaning litany of the "first world problems" experienced by a privileged white woman. To make things worse, the real nature of Claire's accident and of her grieving is often teased - especially in a very dramatic way and when it's narratively convenient - but never truly explained.
The coyness is such that it becomes an infuriating trademark of the film's well-meaning clumsiness: Mr. Barnz wants to have his cake and eat it too, but neither is the cake very good nor has he laid out the table properly. It's almost as the filmmakers thought the sheer presence of Ms. Aniston would be enough to overcome both scripting and handling issues, but, even if it is a good performance and the actress does flesh out her character, it's not enough. Cake ends up following a well-trod path and underusing its solid cast in throwaway, one-note supporting roles. There's an intriguing enough film buried somewhere in here, it's just that Mr. Barnz never found it.
USA, China 2014
Cast Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Lucy Punch, Britt Robertson, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington
Director Daniel Barnz; screenwriter Patrick Tobin; cinematographer Rachel Morrison (colour, widescreen); composer Christophe Beck; designer Joseph T. Garrity; costumes Karyn Wagner; editors Kristina Boden and Michelle Harrison; producers Ben Barnz, Kristin Hahn, Courtney Solomon and Mark Canton; production companies Cinelou Films, Echo Films and We're Not Brothers Productions in association with Shenghua Entertainment
Screened March 15th 2015, Lisbon