REVIEWED BY CATHAL KAVANAGH
Let’s skip over the preamble about Jennifer Aniston’s place in the sitcom canon, her decade spent in rom-com purgatory failing to escape those shackles, and her new film Cake representing a great leap forward in the direction of the Californian becoming A Serious Dramatic Actor who acts in Serious Dramatic Films. You know it all already. The least we can do is judge it not as a prelude to the long mooted Friends reunion, but on its own merits.
Such as they are.
It is a fine thing, surely, for an actor to give a performance good enough to transcend entirely the context of the film they’re playing in. Even more impressive, when the bar set by that film is so low that it threatens to drown the performance in a sea of cliché and idiocy. Thus, Cake. Golden Globe-nominated and arguably Oscar-snubbed Aniston is totally incongruous as the physically and psychologically damaged Clare Bennett, a lawyer recovering from an originally unspecified trauma which leaves her suffering day and night from debilitating chronic pain. Her performance, on a higher plain altogether than absolutely everything around her, seems like it has been lifted directly from a completely different film: a film where plots include actual incidents, where dialogue isn’t lifted from a particularly bad student movie, and where supporting characters aren’t constructed out of actual flimsy plywood. She manages the rare feat of escaping any and all pre-existing conceptions audiences may hold of her. Aniston moulds Clare into what is to all intents and purposes a real person who, despite her unbelievable pronouncements and her “eccentric” actions which must leave actual eccentrics scratching their heads, seems as if one of her greatest misfortunes in life is to have been plucked from reality and dropped unknowingly into this bafflingly uninteresting, intensely frustrating film.
We meet Clare in her sufferer’s support group. Nina, a fellow sufferer played with a little too much earnestness by an occasionally appearing Anna Kendrick, has recently killed herself. It is this that Clare seems to be trying to come to terms with for the majority of the run-time. You know the drill. She knocks back barrel-fulls of prescription medication. She fornicates with gardeners. She befriends the dead woman’s widower (a struggling-with-the-platitudes Sam Worthington) and his child in a bizarre arrangement, while the dearly departed herself periodically surfaces in person to torment her with bitchy remarks.
The whole ordeal is painfully slow to splutter into life. It is as if director Daniel Barnz (Beastly) and screenwriter Patrick Tobin thought that the mere idea of making a serious, profound film was enough, and that frivolous concepts like realistic dialogue and characters were irrelevant to achieving their aim. Aniston is barely visible through a haze of exhausted clichés. Adriana Barraza plays Silvana as the only non-white character in the film, who appears from early on as a Hispanic maid, and spends the rest of the film doing her best with a dreadfully underwritten take on how to do the hispanic maid thing. Clare wakes up sweating every now and then to discover that it was all a dream. Basic motivations are left unexplained. Why does she feel the need to get in contact with Nina’s family? Why develop an obsession with her when, as we learn, she has plentiful supplies of tragedy of her own more immediately close to hand? The dialogue is stilted, the outcomes of scenes telegraphed to the audience long before they have even begun.
Much like putting an original Rembrandt on the wall of your smelly bedsit kitchen, the brilliance of Aniston’s performance here is betrayed by the dullness of its surrounding context. By all means watch this film for a classic case of an actor outperforming her surroundings, for the strong, nuanced dealing with stodgy material that is the mark of a true talent. But don’t blame us if you try paying attention to nearly anything else in this tragically boring film.