Mark Reviews Movies



2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Daniel Barnz

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Felicity Huffman, Mamie Gummer, Chris Messina, Lucy Punch, William H. Macy 

MPAA Rating: R (for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 12/31/14 (limited); 1/23/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 22, 2015

For every scene in Cake that is fair and honest with and about its main character, there are two or three that squarely place her and her dilemma into the realms of artifice and contrivance. The movie tells the story of Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston), who is left grief-stricken and suffering from chronic pain after a life-altering event. The first and most obviously dishonest act on the part of Patrick Tobin's screenplay is in keeping even a general understanding of what that event is from us until well into the movie. We can understand why he would keep the particulars from us (Claire certainly doesn't want to think about them, and the movie maintains her perspective), but this is bigger-picture stuff, not the specifics.

It's not a great mystery, of course. Claire's body is covered in scars. She and her husband Jason (Chris Messina) are separated. There are rooms in her house that are closed off and left unexplored, as well as a blank spot on the wall where a picture once hung. She's angry. She's depressed. People refer to some loss that occurred about a year ago, and it doesn't take a seasoned detective to put these piece together and determine what happened.

By intentionally holding back on revealing what happened to Claire, Tobin shifts the focus from making us observe how she's dealing with tragedy to making us wonder with what she's dealing in the first place. It puts us at a disadvantage for comprehending Claire, and it puts Claire at a disadvantage for becoming a recipient of our sympathy.

That's important at the start, because Claire isn't just angry. She's openly hostile toward everyone, from the people in her support group to her saint of a maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who does everything in her power to get Claire back on her feet but ends up serving as her driver for visits to the local clinic and a pharmacy in Tijuana to obtain the prescription drugs to which Claire has become addicted. She's even antagonistic toward the memory of a woman who committed suicide. In the movie's opening scene, the support group for sufferers of chronic pain are trying to cope with the woman's death, and Claire uses it as an opportunity to announce the gruesome details. "I'm not a fan of suicides that make it easy on the survivors," she offers as an end to her rant.

Whether we like what she says (for its bluntness and macabre humor) or not (for its disregard for the feelings of and nastiness toward those around her), it is a moment of candid honesty about Claire. Yes, it's showy, but the scene presents her as she is, whether we like her or not.

Soon after, though, the movie starts apologizing for her, and it does so with the artificial device of dreams and, later, hallucinations of Nina (Anna Kendrick), the woman who committed suicide. She appears in order to taunt Claire for her own feelings of desperation and her unspoken desire to put an end to her suffering. Claire has dreams of standing on the ledge of the same expressway overpass from which Nina jumped to end her own life, and at one point, she goes there herself, looking down at the passing traffic and imagining taking that final step into oblivion.

Director Daniel Barnz steadily blurs the line between reality and fantasy (It's most apparent in the way a scene will play out only to have Claire awaken from a dream but eventually has Claire seeing Nina's ghost in an otherwise real-world context), and the effect is that the movie's honesty and its artifice start to meld, too. Whether that blending is for better or for worse is difficult to gauge. We start to see Claire's inner thoughts more clearly, especially in how the movie addresses her suicidal thoughts, but we're also keenly aware that the movie is constantly toying with us for effect. The movie's most awkward scene randomly forces Claire to confront the man (William H. Macy) who destroyed her life. By this point, we know what happened, but the scene exists solely as a cynical ploy to put Claire through the ringer just as she's making progress.

This is a movie that works best when it simply allows Claire to experience her pain—of both the physical and psychological varieties—and lets us see how she tries to cope with it. In an attempt to understand the death of the woman haunting her dreams, Claire meets Nina's widowered husband Roy (Sam Worthington), and the two share a strangely touching, non-sexual relationship that is dependent upon the notion that neither needs the other but that both are comfortable enough to say the things that usually go unsaid in polite company. Roy confesses that he hates his wife for ruining his life and the life of their young son (Evan O'Toole), and Claire admits that she doesn't like to sleep alone.

Cake does understand that recovering from trauma is process of baby steps, so perhaps the reason the movie feels a bit disingenuous is the way Barnz and Tobin communicate those moments of change as momentous leaps. It's not enough that Claire adapts to her situation. The movie seems to feel the need to ensure our comprehension is guaranteed beyond all doubt.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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