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.
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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.