Of all the films about suicide, and there are many, Cake may be the least surprising. Death comes for us all and some of us can't wait. But inbetween, life usually offers a few twists and turns to keep things interesting. But not in Cake. Director Daniel Barnz, working off a script by Patrick Tobin, takes few chances with a sensitive story about damaged people and the wreckage they endure and, subsequently, cause.
Cake follows a wounded woman living alone with her housekeeper in Los Angeles. Claire Bennett, played by Jennifer Aniston, seems to have given up on life. She's an orchestra of aches and pains after an unseen accident and Aniston labors through the performance. We meet her during her last support group. A fellow member has just killed herself and Claire traumatizes everyone by spelling out the details. The group isn't being honest enough, but they honestly ask her to leave.
Claire's stuck in a wasteland of depression, pain pills, and jugs of vodka. But the death of the girl in support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has piqued her curiosity. Claire's obviously suicidal also and she's found a soulmate in Nina, who didn't just kill herself, she jumped from a freeway overpass—a dramatic exit. Does Claire have the same conviction? She finds herself visiting Nina's house and the site of the jump to find out more. She meets the dead woman's husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), who admits t o hating Nina for leaving him. Cake skirts the usual cliches found in films of this type by setting the story after the action. We aren't shown what gory details. We're dispatched into the ash of what remains.
The film tries to create suspense from the set up. Usually, the not-knowing would keep us riveted. But Cake isn't complex enough to be unpredictable. Claire's husband (Chris Messina) shows up early in the film and it's revealed he's left her. By introducing him, the film indirectly narrows down what might have happened and it stifles the drama. It also makes us sympathize with Claire less. She becomes less a wounded woman and more a selfish sad sack
Aniston, nominated for several major awards for this performance, doesn't reveal anything new here. Her roles in The Good Girl and Friends with Money are similar. That's not to say she isn't strong in the role. She disappears into Claire, emotionally and physically. She gained weight for the character and wears scars on her face. But no one should be surprised to see the actress amp up the sardonic wit, she's always tempered her sweet characters with hints of sarcasm. She's also always been a fine actress.
Cake's best performance though, largely overshadowed by the ultra-famous Aniston, is given by Adriana Barraza, who plays Claire's loyal housekeeper, Silvana. She tolerates Claire's biting personality and anger because she knows what she's been through. Barraza lends the character a depth of empathy that's entirely natural. An early scene shows Silvana at home with her teenage daughter, who disapproves of Claire. Softly, Silvana disagrees, as if she recognizes what her daughter is saying is true but considers it inconsequential. Whatever Claire has survived, Silvana was a witness, and the two women are inexorably linked. Their relationship is the big reason to see Cake.
For Aniston, Cake is a step forward into more dramatic territory. There are few roles for middle-aged women of real substance and they usually they go to Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore. This role should help put her in the conversation. But Cake needs to be more than the Jennifer Aniston show to succeed. It's a safe film about a remarkably unsafe topic.