A comedy that barely flirts with funny and a grim weeper that never quite raises a tear, “Cake” has one thing going for it: Jennifer Aniston.
And if she didn’t get the Oscar nomination that might have seemed certain when she took on playing this physically and emotionally scarred and suicidal pill-popper, that’s of little consequence. The work is good enough to stand on its own, to stand with the best acting she’s done since graduating from TV sitcoms.
Claire Bennett wears her bitterness like the healed cuts that mar her face. A bad thing has happened to her, so bad that she’s in group therapy. But she doesn’t fit in with Annette (Felicity Huffman) and the other walking wounded. They lash out, as an exercise, at a dead woman (Anna Kendrick) from their group who killed herself. Not Claire. She notes the manner of death, the horror, humiliation and inconvenience she caused her widowed husband and little boy.
“Way to go, Nina! I hate it when suicides make it easy on survivors.”
The one continuity in Claire’s pained, dazed life is her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). She’s the one who drives Claire to physical therapy, where she curses a blue streak. Silvana indulges Claire, goes above and beyond trying to encourage healing. But she tends to a woman in such pain, she cannot sit up in the car seat when riding, cannot help but mix wine and Oxycontin, which she cons one of her doctors (Lucy Punch) out of.
The presence of funny folk Punch, Huffman and Chris Messina (as Claire’s estranged husband) suggests a tone that this script never quite rises to. Claire is acerbic, occasionally amusing, occasionally getting a rise out of those she interacts with. But Nina (Kendrick) becomes her main sparring partner as this lonely woman, six months after whatever put her into this state, drinks and drugs herself to death. And those chats aren’t funny.
Nina’s ghost is in her pool, on her ledge, in her room and in her head. Nina is the one who wonders “Why?” Why would this atheist-loner kill herself?
That seems obvious. Less obvious is Nina’s reasons for offing herself. Claire starts asking around, questioning the highway worker who called out “Don’t jump,” the last person to see Nina alive. Claire even starts in on Nina’s husband, given marvelously human dimensions by Sam Worthington.
Kendrick is bubbly and on-the-nose, Barraza puts flesh and bone on a character written as a “Dios mio!” cliche — Catholic, kind-hearted, loyal.
But Aniston sells this movie, delivering the few one-liners with sitcom timing, packing a wallop in a third-act meltdown, and making us believe that yes, there are reasons to check out and Claire has them, or would if she’d sober up and get the guts to go through with it. It’s a terrific performance, and makes “Cake” worth seeing, even if Aniston won’t get an Oscar for it.