Cake. Directed by Daniel Barnz. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza and Sam Worthington. Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Headlining the yearly list of Oscar snubs was David Oyelowo, in a highly competitive Best Actor category, and Jennifer Aniston, in a Best Actress lineup with some definite wiggle room.
The absence of Aniston's name was a surprise because the Academy loves a transformation, and in Cake they get it twofold. Onscreen, Aniston goes from red carpet-ready to dowdy in order to play Claire, a pill-addicted, chronic-pain sufferer. And her career segues from hair messiah and rom-com star to bona fide actress in one fell swoop.
We feel her pain from the very first scene, when a cloyingly I'm-OK-you're-OK therapist (Felicity Huffman) asks members of a chronic-pain self-help group to voice their feelings about Nina (Anna Kendrick), a member who has committed suicide.
Claire feigns annoyance, but she's more than a little obsessed, visiting the site where the suicide happened and even touring Nina's home. That visit involves a run-in with the woman's hunky husband Roy (Sam Worthington), grieving father of a young son, and the two develop an unlikely, unhealthy relationship.
Claire sees hallucinations of Nina everywhere thanks to the truckloads of meds she pops on a daily basis. Some of these prescriptions are legal but most - like the bottles she stashes behind picture frames - are not. In desperation Claire even convinces her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza, excellent) to cross the border into Mexico to procure more painkillers.
Silvana is as longsuffering as her employer: Claire's ill temper has alienated her husband (Chris Messina), her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), her friends, and everyone else. She works long hours for little money, drives Claire - who has to lie prone because of the pain - on all sorts of semi-legal jaunts, and has to sit mum while Claire makes questionable life choices. (Like screwing her handyman, in a scene cringe-worthy both for the clichÃ© and the amount of discomfort that it causes.) Silvana is Claire's saviour, her only friend in the world, and the film excels when it focuses on the relationship between the women. (Barraza's name would've been on the Best Supporting list, if I had a golden wand.)
It's easy to see why Claire would contemplate suicide herself, as her past is slowly revealed. We guess at the sad history early on, but it takes so long to unspool that we nearly lose interest in the interim. When all is finally revealed in writer Patrick Tobin's screenplay it feels like too little, too late, too few risks taken.
Aniston is convincing enough that when I got up out of my seat I did so gingerly, forgetting that she was the one in terrific pain, and not me. Her performance is the essential ingredient that makes the film worth watching even as other elements prove half-baked.