Daniel Barnz’s Cake is a real change of pace for Friends star Jennifer Aniston in what is her most convincing – and hard-hitting – dramatic role to date. It is a powerful, although uncomfortable, portrayal of a woman’s battle against her demons, one in which she appears to be unceremoniously failing. The reality of Aniston’s character Claire Bennett’s situation feels honest if somewhat uneasy, as her predicament – not inflicted, but certainly enhanced, by her own doing – affects not just herself, but the lives of those around her.
Bennett (Aniston) has been suffering with chronic pain since a tragic accident which resulted in the death of her little boy. Charged with a self-destructive attitude – highlighted through her antagonistic behaviour at a self-help group (led by Felicity Hoffman’s Annette) – Bennett eases her woes with the help of large doses of prescription drugs and booze. In her on-going battle, the former lawyer becomes fixated with the suicide of one of the group’s members, Nina (Anna Kendrick), befriending her widow Roy (Sam Worthington) in the process, and gaining a strange sense of comfort from their relationship.
A well-off, white, middle-class American, Bennett’s not afraid to use and abuse – in every sense – the system and the people around her to get what she wants. Barnz’s film makes no qualms about the privileged nature of its leading character as she flexes her social and financial muscle, whether that be working the medical system, smuggling drugs in from Mexico, or taking advantage of long-suffering maid, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). As we witness her spiral into a trippy world of drug-fuelled hallucinations and daydreams, it becomes difficult to distinguish whether we feel sympathy or resentment towards the film’s protagonist, yet there is no denying that the drug addict is going through the ringer both physically and emotionally. There is plenty to chew on – and much food for thought – as issues of class, family, mental health, and society in general are examined – although in some instances sadly too passively – through Bennett’s behaviour and relationships with those closest to her.
Cake is a film full of hate, anger and resentment, and such ill-feelings never quite lift. There is no grand light-bulb moment or a happily-ever-after; Barnz’s film feels truthful, but eerily depressing. Aniston’s performance, however, is the cream that holds this big, worldly cake together. Some slices taste slightly odd and appear a little misshapen, but in general – despite a somewhat sour taste – it is a multi-layered triumph.