Toronto Film Review: ‘Cake’

Cake Toronto Film Festival

Daniel Barnz's dark comedy-drama stars Jennifer Aniston as a woman struggling with chronic pain.

A strong if self-consciously deglammed performance from Jennifer Aniston deserves more honest story treatment than it gets in “Cake,” a darkly amusing but overly calculated comedy-drama about a Los Angeles woman whose struggles with chronic pain have made her a royal pain. Approaching such heavy issues as suicide, grief, separation and pill addiction with a disarming sense of humor, director Daniel Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin attempt to pull off an emotional bait-and-switch by suddenly revealing a more sympathetic side to their anti-heroine, falling back on one of the hoariest and most overused of movie cliches in the process. Although Aniston and other cast names will draw distrib and audience interest, this manipulatively layered “Cake” probably won’t rise to the occasion in limited theatrical play and VOD rotation.

From the opening scene of her annoyingly touchy-feely, I-respect-your-feelings support group for sufferers of chronic pain, Claire Simmons (Aniston) has the audience firmly on her side. While everyone else expresses shock and sadness over the loss of one of their own, Nina, who recently jumped to her death from a freeway overpass, Claire responds with ruthless, refreshing sarcasm (“Way to go, Nina!”). You almost have to wonder if she’s considered the suicide option herself, given the acute intensity of her physical agony — something she nurses constantly with painkillers that are in constant need of replenishing, and rarely through legal means.

Helping her out in that regard is her Mexican immigrant housekeeper, Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza), who, despite her concerned grumbling about some of Claire’s less defensible life choices (like screwing the hunky gardener), is the closest thing the woman has to a best friend, or indeed any friend at all. (At one point, when Claire runs out of ways to refill her prescription, she and Silvana hightail it down to Mexico in search of drugs.) But that changes not long after Claire begins to experience disturbing yet intriguing hallucinatory visions of Nina (Anna Kendrick), spurring her to get in touch with the dead woman’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), and their young son.

The sequence in which Claire first introduces herself to Roy, on some clearly phony pretext, affords one of the film’s most offhandedly amusing moments. It’s also one of many moments throughout the story that reveal Claire to be much more than just “a raving bitch,” as she calls herself. Sure, she’s white, rich and privileged, and so whiny and pessimistic about her condition that she’s already driven away her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), her support-group leader (Felicity Huffman) and a husband (Chris Messina) who clearly still cares about her a great deal. But she also turns out to have a heart, a sense of humor, a playful sense of adventure and, based on a brief rant about Orange County conservatives, impeccable liberal politics.

To be sure, Aniston leads with her scowl here, in the sort of performance that often gets called “brave” but is more accurately described as a well-executed change of pace. But despite all the behind-the-scenes efforts to make the actress look as dowdy and unattractive as possible, complete with dark, stringy hair (unlike to spur another “Friends” haircut phenomenon), sallow complexion and mysterious facial scar, her natural spark can’t help but shine through all that fastidious uglification. Claire’s real crime, apparently, is that she says whatever is on her mind with zero concern for how others will receive it, which may make her a difficult person to encounter in real life, but gives her a strong enough rooting interest where the audience is concerned.

Returning to the independent realm for the first time since 2008’s “Phoebe in Wonderland” (he’s since collected Hollywood paychecks on “Beastly” and “Won’t Back Down”), Barnz brings a nicely polished touch to a production with a subtler, more authentic sense of L.A. atmosphere than most. Amid the supporting cast, Barraza manages to push past the stereotype of the Hispanic cleaning lady to achieve a fully rounded characterization (as she also did in the very different “Babel”), and Barnz allows her to walk away with perhaps the movie’s funniest scene. William H. Macy has a brief, startling turn in a role that it would be imprudent to divulge, while Kendrick is somewhat underused in the ghostly daydream sequences, though she does get to deliver the anecdote that touchingly explains the movie’s title.

Fittingly enough for a movie about addiction, “Cake” is predicated on repeated patterns of behavior  the compulsive manner in which Claire keeps checking her secret pill stash, or her habit of reclining all the way back in the passenger seat while Silvana drives, the pain being too great for her to sit up like a normal person. (Among other things, this is a movie whose final shot can be seen coming a mile away.) Some of these repetitions, it turns out, also serve as clues, forming a trail of narrative breadcrumbs meant to lead viewers into the true heart of the story, and to suddenly position Aniston’s antiheroine in a warmer, more forgiving light. It’s a clever ruse but a hollow one, not revealing or deepening Claire’s character so much as reducing it to an artfully scrambled puzzle. At the last minute, “Cake” becomes a film not about physical pain, but a different kind entirely, and one about which it doesn’t have all that much new to say.

Toronto Film Review: 'Cake'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2014. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

A Cinelou Films presentation of a Cinelou Films, Echo Films, We're Not Brothers Prods. production in association with Shenghua Entertainment. Produced by Ben Barnz, Kristin Hahn, Courtney Solomon, Mark Canton. Executive producers, Jennifer Aniston, Shyam Madiraju. Co-producers, Stephanie Caleb, Scott Karol, Wayne Marc Godfrey.

Crew

Directed by Daniel Barnz. Screenplay, Patrick Tobin. Camera (color), Rachel Morrison; editors, Kristina Boden, Michelle Harrison; production designer, Joseph Garrity; art director, Brittany Bradford; set decorator, Lisa Son; costume designer, Karyn Wagner; sound, Steven Morrow; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Myron Nettinga; special effects coordinator, Gary Monak; stunt coordinator, Stacy Courtney; associate producers, Babak Eftekhari, assistant director, David Ticotin; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham.

With

Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Lucy Punch, Britt Robertson, Paula Cale, Ashley Crow, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Camille Guaty, Allen Maldonado, Camille Mana, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Anna Kendrick. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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  1. Sophie says:

    I would really have liked for the movie to at least told us what happened in a little more detail. How in the world she survived, I assume a terrible car crash, and her son did not, with all of the scars and pain she was in. I was disappointed that it did not go into any detail or even a brief synopsis of what happened.

  2. Lisa Lane says:

    Thanks a lot for throwing those of us, who really suffer from physical chronic pain, to the wolves again. As if the media, DEA, and drug addicts haven’t already made a hard, painful life, even more so. I was hoping for an honest depiction of a person in PHYSICAL pain, not another person who uses drugs to cover up their emotional pain. BOO on you. This could have been a great movie, Oscar material, if you hadn’t of gone down that road. What a huge disappointment!

    • Kasandra says:

      Chronic pain is often a result of emotional pain and drugs are often abused because the pain is more neurological than physical and no matter how much painkillers are taken it doesn’t help. Any smart person would put all this together. It’s a movie btw any smart person knows the difference between movies and reality. Regardless, I think it’s a good DRAMATIC depiction of how emotional pain combined with physical pain can imprison someone.

  3. Ricky says:

    I guess you had to say something different. But you are wrong it was an honest story.

  4. D. Lindler says:

    Performance by Anniston was beyond superb. You could feel her emotions and pain and anger radiating from the screen. She proved in this movie she is not fluff. She is 100% an actress. It did not even look like her in some scenes she was so intense and caustic. Great flick.

  5. stopthetsa says:

    One of the best movies I have ever seen.

  6. Shlomo says:

    So, I just saw the movie Cake, with Jennifer Aniston. I was one of the naysayers who thought they’d do something predictable that made showed people fighting chronic pain in a bad light. Some people who saw it confirmed they felt it did. Well, I’m going to have to retract my prediction! I think they did a really good job. I’m not sure people who don’t suffer chronic pain will really get it, and since it’s been universally panned by critics and people with pain alike, I’m afraid that one of the key elements of the story isn’t clear. The story made perfect sense to me. It’s about the grieving process and coming to a place of acceptance, which is the only place from which you can begin to heal – emotionally and physically. Because it’s difficult to demonstrate the deep loss of self people feel when they become disabled by pain, the story has the main character struggling with more obvious losses of her son from the accident that maimed and crippled her, and then the loss of her marriage as well. The movie also has a character who mirrors Aniston’s – she’s a young mother from Aniston’s pain group who’s committed suicide, leaving behind a boy the same age as the one who died. Aniston starts to see and talk to her, and work through her grief and anger, using her and the family left behind as a proxy sort of, for what she’s lost. Two sides of the same coin. The mother’s one wish is to bake her son a cake from scratch – a wish that I think symbolizes the many everyday losses that people who aren’t sick take for granted.

    People have criticized the movie for depicting her has an addict, therefore perpetuating a stereotype of pain sufferers as addicts. But we’re taking that too personally, I think – I’m curious whether people who aren’t in pain see the movie and I stead see her as an individual self-medicating because she’s in physical pain and has access to the drugs, but also because she’s in such shattering emotional pain from the loss of her son, job, marriage and the things she could do before her accident. She’s angry, and she doesn’t see a way to get physically better. She tells her PT honestly, “you think I’m an old bitch who has given up, but I am just really in a lot of pain.” How many of us have felt like saying that? I know I have. We project a lot of our shame and self-hatred onto other people. Or at least I know I did in the beginning. I’ve been very angry, depressed and difficult to be around. I grieved the loss of my former life and the mother I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I worked through those things and found a desire to live again, that I was able to start doing the physical work I needed to do to get better.

    I think this movie captures that process very subtly. I don’t think it will be recognized for what it is unless people identify it as a movie about one aspect of living with chronic pain – the grieving and acceptance stage. It’s a shame the movie wasn’t marketed in a way that made that message clear – this isn’t meant to be about chronic pain, but about grief. In that context, I think they did a superb job. It’s the marketing that tanked it and jeopardizes the view people may have of people in chronic pain. At the same time, I really don’t think it’s out to depict the whole community that way, and I don’t think people will come away with that view. They may recognize anger they’ve seen in friends who are suffering, but I think the outcry about the pills is maybe a little bit of our own misinterpretation.

    I’m curious to hear what others think? It’s available to rent on Vudu and Google play, as well as iTunes.

  7. kim clarke says:

    Where can i get a copy of this movie

  8. Sarah Jane says:

    what is the name of the book that this movie is based off of?

  9. christy harper says:

    Coming from someone living with chronic pain cake was a awsome movie. My husband took me to see it and he even
    Liked the movie. For someone who doesn’t understand this is the movie to see. jennifer Aniston done a wonderful
    Job playing the role. I give it 10 stars.

    • Ian Tee says:

      I agree! I have chronic pain and watched this film with my partner – this film was so spot on in it’s depiction of daily frustrations for people with chronic pain, some of the details would be too subtle I guess for people who have no experience/empathy for such issues…even my partner kept shooting me knowing glances throughout the film! I suspect that it will only be the people who have real life experience of the issues in the film, who will be the ones who truly get the film. I found this film to have a delightful honesty – far more so than crwod-pleasing illness films like Still Alice or even The Theory of Everything – where illness is always pitched as being highly visible (chronic illness is invisible) and a heroic battle.

  10. juan blea says:

    Cake is NOT a movie about Addiction; It’s a movie about managing real and severe pain and any substance abuse portrayed in the movie is merely symptomatic of Claire’s inability to cope with either her physical pain or her emotional pain.

  11. This reviewer clearly missed the point with this film, which is in the same genre as The Fisher King. It’s not remotely “a comedy-drama” but rather is an intimate drama which looks at the pain and suffering of people who have lived through terrible trauma. This reviewer clearly has never been to the kind of depths that this film revolves around and to state that it “deserves a more honest story treatment” is an utter falsehood and misrepresentation of the humanity of the movie.. I’d fire the guy.
    Anniston and the other actors all do a great job, and the process by which she comes back from total emotional numbness is really what the film is all about in the end, and it’s simultaneously excruciating and exhilarating.

  12. Diana says:

    I too am looking forward to seeing this movie about a controversial subject (controversial to those who do not have chronic pain and do not believe in it-because after all if you really want to you can heal yourself or find a way to “get better and move on”). I just hope it really shows how frustrating and exhausting it is to deal with. Every day.

  13. Gregory Templeman says:

    I cannot wait for this move to hit Australia. Thank you for bringing this issue forward, I have pain syndrome, plus I am an amputee, however you can see that I am missing a leg but you cannot see the pain I am feeling inside… Thank you… Cheers from a pain syndrome sufferer…GT

  14. lagia@comcast.net says:

    My take on her character lying down in the car was not because of her physical pain but that she couldn’t bear looking out at traffic because of the fear of the car accident and flashbacks of the car hitting her so tragically. And at the end, after being off pain medicine for awhile and multiple ways of healing through Sam/husband and dealing with the loss of her son she finally gained the strength to sit up again. I can’t imagine something so horrific and losing your only child. No wonder she took so much pain medicine…she wanted to die and who wouldn’t after something so tragic. This movie touched me in so many ways and I thought Jennifer Aniston was awesome.

    • My commented says:

      I agree that she did not want to look out the window of the car I had that same thought when I was watching it because I remember seeing her set up in other situations like in the restaurant by enjoy the movie I thought it was a littlestrange and some parts like when they picked up the young girl and she took her home to make the cake I understand why she had to make a cake but that whole scene seems like it was just kind of shoved into the movie. I wish people would not try to get so deep (and offended) when talking about how the chronic pain aspect of the movie and whether it was authentic or not. It’s just a movie it’s not a social statement it’s entertainment

    • Renee says:

      Yes, clearly the reviewer missed the reason for her laying down in the car. Initiallly we think it’s the physical pain, but it’ becomes clear it’s the emotional trauma. She obviously had PTSD from the accident and losing her child. I found this movie very moving. I could feel her pain, and I suspect there’s a huge audience that can relate to medicating their pain instead of dealing with it.

  15. tzag says:

    Just saw Cake and was very intrigued before seeing it on what the movie was about and how chronic sufferer of pain (physical and emotional) would be portrayed, as well as, try to get any sense of tips that may show itself during the movie. I’m 47, have chronic pain (day/night) since 16 and all the issues it causes in life with everything you do physically and emotionally. I thought Jennifer played a great part in much of it but thought the actual message was way lost in translation. Bad movie writer I think. Here’s why. The movie stressed a lot of her addiction to pain meds which chronic sufferers of pain need but many are responsible in that respect. Just because a chronic pain sufferer needs pain meds doesn’t mean they are going to take them abusively so I didn’t like that message at all. Secondly, many chronic pain sufferers really can’t get better. Many are disease related (autoimmune), not accidental tragedies. Cures aren’t there. You do your best but the best aren’t enough. Also, many chronic sufferers have to live and have to try and keep up with life independently which takes more energy then they have when there are days/nights of no sleep from pain and they still have to get to work and make a living somehow in constant pain. I wish the movie wouldn’t have been all over the place on the chronic pain issue. It had too many other distracting messages then the focus on chronic pain. For instance, her child died which took the focus off the chronic pain and the emotional challenges of just that alone. It made it seem like she was abusing pain meds because of her emotional dealings with the accident and not because of the pain itself. To me, if they were doing a movie on chronic pain then they should have made that the central focus and all plots in the movie working toward understanding and messaging about just that. The good parts about it, was Jennifer’s physical movements, the crankiness, the arms reach of people from the pain, the no b.s. of chatting (no energy) just get to the point attidude and her quickly wanting people away from her at a moments notice (people in pain don’t want the added pressure/stress) of having people see them in pain (it’s pressure/stress) they no longer have so they quickly try to get people away from them at a moments notice not because they have a cold heart that doesn’t feel but just the opposite. They care and don’t want people to see them this way.

    Anyway, great acting on Jennifer Aniston and her caregiver but the actual story to me was average at best.

    • Sirius cat says:

      This was not a documentary about chronic pain. It was a drama about a woman who was dealing with pain from an injury and she abused drugs to cope.

    • Liane says:

      This is a huge spoiler and you should warn readers: “For instance, her child died which took the focus off the chronic pain and the emotional challenges of just that alone”

      • Ruth Rossin says:

        People seem to be thinking this is a movie about managing constant physical pain. The true cause of her emotional pain (and even the back pain and scars) is so subtly done and so late in the picture that they have escaped many of the people I see reviewing or commenting on this fine performance, Some think she is a spoiled divorcee with back pain who pops pills and is testy with her various caretakers and maid. The writer takes to long for us to finally learn the cause of her deep depression, her physical pain and why she is so angry at Nina, who committed suicide and left a husband and small boy behind. I encourage people to see this film for some fine performances, especially Aniston, who shows such depth, and her wonderful housekeeper. The “support group” scene was great!!

  16. Benaam says:

    I do feel bad for few who fear that this can go against all those suffering from chronic pains. While i empathize the condition and situation this movie might put you in, we are all adults here. Movies are to be seen just for the story it says. Movies are not the messengers for social correctness or lack thereof.
    Drawing any tangential lines from a creative work to real life would be foolhardy.
    I found movie to be extremely irritating and I hated Jennifer’s over the top acting. May be for the first time, it that was the real intended effect Jennifer / director wanted audience to experience.. yes she gets the cake..

  17. Dolly says:

    As the daughter of a chronic pain sufferer who was challenged by addiction to her pain meds, I will definitely be seeing this film. My mother was in a boating accident 7 years ago and became addicted to her meds almost immediately following her 14 surgeries simply because of the immense amount of pain she faced every single day. She hasn’t been to a movie theater in almost 11 years but she actually asked me to take her to see this one.

    Those who are afraid of all pain sufferers being “portrayed negatively” should understand that this film is about ONE woman’s pain and addiction and how she deals with the aftermath of great tragedy and brings herself back from what she views as being dead. This film is not about Jennifer Aniston or make-up or Oscars. See past the media lens and note that the movie highlights the spirit of this woman. It shows that no matter how beat down, beat up, depressed, addicted, cynical, etc. you might get, you absolutely CAN overcome, you CAN be strong and you can be what you need for yourself.

    Addiction may not be part of YOUR personal journey but it’s a truth for thousands of people who face it in shame and secret.

  18. ILiveW/ChronicPain says:

    I will wait to see this when it is out on, on demand; only because I live with severe Chronic pain and want to be at home viewing this moving, in case my emotions probably upset and very mad emotions come out. I think its good CP in getting attention, but not in this manner of a movie as in the addiction part. I follow my pain meds to the note of how its written, even though my Dr doesn’t care how I take my 4 pills of methadone a day as long as that is it. I have never run out, or “lost” my pills, or asked for more before refill is needed, never in 10 yrs. Yes I’ve had my script upped in dose a few time, but my desease does get worse over time and will never stop doing that.
    Things I see about this movie I don’t like her support group seems like they see nothing is seriously wrong with their group members, says crap about support group, they should be able to help them, not let them get worse and worse. Seems to me they want their viewers to thinks cp sufferers are just drug users with psychological problems, but most of us are just in pain all day every day, and nothing helps but pain meds and even that well we are still in pain just less, like me.

  19. stacie says:

    You had me at “impeccable liberal politics”. When will Hollywood learn that inserting liberal politics into movies that have nothing to do with politics drives away paying customers? Who isn’t sick to death of politics? I definitely won’t be seeing this movie!

    • Terry says:

      I’m with Stacie- I was looking forward to seeing the movie but refuse to financially support yet another Hollywood “rant against … conservatives.” I won’t pay to be insulted.

  20. CarlChros says:

    So basically a simple story with no lesson; and oscar buzz for Jennifer Aniston? maybe oscar buzz for Adriana Barraza?

  21. tapati says:

    Those of us with chronic pain are portrayed so seldom that I’m concerned this one movie will brand us all as addicted to pain killers. Anyone who is experienced with chronic pain will know that over use of pain medication renders it useless and sends you down a hole of increased dosage and dependence. It’s easy for me to have that perspective since chronic migraine sufferers can’t take such meds more than two-three days a week or we risk rebound headache. Anyone who’s had that will not risk it again because you have to stop all medication for a few weeks to make it stop.

    So moviegoers, remind yourself that this one character cannot represent every one of us living with chronic pain and that we don’t all have the same personality or handle pain in the same way.

    That said, I’m glad the subject is getting ANY attention in Hollywood. Modern medicine can keep us alive longer but it can’t always deal with the worst effects of our chronic illness. I’m grateful to know my grandchildren but I wish I could do more with them.

  22. Polly Ramos says:

    This movie sounds like a huge slap in the face to ANY chronic pain sufferer!!!:-(

  23. SA Wa says:

    Haven’t seen the movie but I have read the script (it was on the Blacklist)- which was an easy read; had a complex and interesting lead character and an engaging story.

    Let’s face it, from a male’s POV, female leads are more easily accepted when written as the ‘hoariest’ of cliches …but this one is not! Which is why, I’m guessing, JA liked the role. Next time Variety might better be served by letting a female critic review a story about a female whose life has been torn apart. On the heels of Robin Williams departure choice, I think this is a timely film that might spark some relevant discussions about finding a way to move forward in your life after personal tragedy strikes. With that said, I’m gonna take a wild guess and say you are probably not this film’s target audience. But, last I checked, we’re all still entitled to our opinions. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

    [Did the same person who wrote the “summary” of the film also write the scathing first paragraph? Sounds like two different voices.]

    • Susan Weaver says:

      I was brought to tears watching good morning America thinking finally a voice for chronic pain suffers. Finally something for my family and friends to see so they will understand. After reading the story line and watching the clip I was so disappointed. This isn’t my chronic pain story. This isn’t the voice of people who suffer chronic pain because of physical illness. This isn’t the voice of chronic pain suffers who responsibly take their pain medication just to be able to live their lives. Yes it is just a hollywood movie, but I was hopeful that finally, finally, people would be able to understand my life.

      • Unhappy in Florida says:

        I too was brought to ‘happy’ tears, thinking wow I need my husband to watch this! Now seeing the reviews, I don’t want anyone in my family to watch it. I am not an addicit, and like others take as prescribed and some only when I can’t take pain any longer. This is horrible and comes at a time when Congress is already telling our doctors how to take care of us. I’m really saddened that they focused on addiction instead of the pain sufferer.

  24. Michele says:

    It takes more than a scar and dark hair to bring truth to such raw material. I’ll wait for cable…maybe.

    • Donna Forgie says:

      chronic regional pain syndrome is a realistic disease which is shared by myself and probably thousands. I had knee replacement surgery in 2009 and have been diagnosed with RSD a modern name for CRPS.It is real and horrible. I don’t want pain pills or compression stockings for the rest of my life, but doctors say that’s all there is. Spinal injections are useless also. I can’t wait to see Cake and I hope everyone can come to the true aspect of this craziness that has invaded my life since I was 53 years old.

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