Believe it or not, it has been twenty one years since Jennifer Aniston became a household name as the fashion obsessed Rachel Greene in Friends, a television show that shaped a generation and influenced media and pop culture arguably more than any other before it. Since the show’s ending in 2004, Aniston has been something of a mainstay in Hollywood ventures, choosing to stay in a comedic or romantic comfort zone in unremarkable but financially successful films such as Horrible Bosses, The Break-Up, Bruce Almighty and We’re The Millers. Now forty six years old and perhaps eager to lay a few more solid bricks in her career wall, Aniston provides audiences with a completely different and unfamiliar portrayal in drama Cake. With everything seemingly set up for a classic case of fluffy actresses’ dramatic awakening, the only question left to answer was, is Cake actually any good?
The film tells the story of Claire Bennett (Aniston), a woman who suffers from chronic pain after going through serious leg reconstruction as the result of a tragic car crash that has left her with both physical and mental scarring after causing the death of her young son. Separated from her husband (Chris Messina), the audience see that Claire’s life has been irreversibly affected by these events, now an acerbic, impatient woman who is forced to deal with mental pain as well as physical pain, and with one constantly compounding the other she descends in to a routine of restless sleep, lonely days and the abuse of prescription medications. A change in this routine occurs when Nina (Anna Kendrick), a fellow chronic pain sufferer and member of Claire’s old support group, kills herself, and the plot proceeds to take the audience on a darkly humorous but grittily melancholy journey in which Claire befriends Nina’s widowed husband (Sam Worthington) and son in an attempt to recapture some of the happiness of her previous life. For a film with such heavy and upsetting themes, Cake is surprisingly and refreshingly funny. An array of quirky and comic characters (notably Adriana Barraza as Claire’s home help Silvana) inject moments of light relief in to the narrative whilst also acting as foils for the humorous wrath of Claire’s acerbic wit and pained sarcasm. As a duo, Claire and Silvana provide a number of enjoyable Thelma and Louise-esque road trip set pieces including a particularly memorable drive across the border to Tijuana, and these help to break up some of the more serious and affecting moments of drama. In Cake the filmmakers have achieved the perfect balance of heavy drama and complimentary dark humour that feels authentic to the situation, and a touch of supernatural in the recurring presence of Nina’s ‘ghost’ gives the picture a whimsical edge that really helps to lighten a subject matter that could have so easily been overwhelming. In a similar vein to films like Girl, Interrupted, In Bruges or even the year’s biggest critical hit Birdman, Cake provides a meaty narrative context for the audience but allows them to enjoy a degree of lighter nuance that culminates in a rewarding and satisfying cinematic experience that is neither too heavy nor too irreverent.
In terms of performance, Jennifer Aniston has a lot to be proud of and to be commended for. Her decades of comedic practise really set the actress up to be able to tap in to the darkly humorous undertones that the character of Claire required. Some say that comedic acting is more difficult than dramatic acting I would tend to agree, a purely dramatic actress certainly would not have been equipped to carry this role and Aniston’s background in comedy allowed her to build on her natural talents to create a complicated and layered character. Aniston’s remarkable physicality is also something of particular notice throughout the film. Is is absolutely vital that the pain Claire is feeling is authentically presented on screen, and the way in which Jennifer holds herself, giving an occasionally wince and rare full painful outburst really makes for uncomfortable and empathetic viewing. It was vital for the character of Claire to be one of sympathy for the audience despite her acerbic and at time plain mean demeanour, and Aniston achieves this balance even better than I could have imagined. It’s a shame that Academy voters found no room for her in their five Best Actress nominations, I feel that she gave a better performance that at least one of the nominated actresses. A rich cast of big names including Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Anna Kendrick and Sam Worthington perform well to add dimension to the film, but in truth it really is all about Jennifer Aniston and her new found ability to lead a primarily dramatic picture with strong command and credibility.
Overall, Cake is a film that I can’t help but feel has been massively overlooked this awards season. In what is most certainly Aniston’s best cinematic performance to date, the actress has left awards season with little more than a nod from People’s Magazine and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The picture is touching, heartbreaking, quirky and vitally funny when it needs to be, a combination of filmmaking that is so rarely successful or properly effective. A must see for cinephile’s like me who prefer their humour on the dark side, but also a must see for fans of great acting and unusual narrative.