Pain in full
Jennifer Aniston does such a great job of looking and sounding miserable in Cake, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear crew hands were driving nails into her feet out of the camera’s view during takes.
The reasons for Claire’s misery are not made clear until well into the film, a wise choice by director Daniel Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin. Not only does it provide the film with a decent mystery, it allows the focus to solely be on Claire in the moment, struggling from second to second with physical back pain and some sort of loss.
The film opens on Claire in a chronic pain support group. They address the loss of Nina (played by Anna Kendrick in photos and flashbacks), a member who committed suicide by jumping off a freeway overpass. Claire makes a brutally honest observation about the conditions of her suicide, and finds herself getting ejected from the group. It’s clear that she is a dangerously unhappy person.
Little is revealed about Claire’s background. We learn she has a husband (Chris Messina) who cares deeply for her, but no longer lives at their house. She appears to be taken care of financially, with a supportive housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) enduring her mood swings.
For reasons unexplained, Claire fixates on Nina, sometimes dreaming about her, and even hallucinating about her after indulging in too many painkillers. Her obsession leads her to Nina’s house, where she meets Roy (Sam Worthington), her widower, and her son. Worthington proves great in the role, delivering perhaps his best performance yet as a man confused by the loss of his wife, and dealing with Claire in a very curious, and amiable, fashion.
The relationship between Claire and Roy is an unorthodox, yet delicately handled one. I dare to say it’s even charming, which is surprising considering both of their current states. Aniston and Worthington are very much in command of the raw emotion and pain in play between their characters. They even manage to inject a fair amount of humor.
Aniston somehow manages to make Claire a sympathetic character despite her constant unpleasantness. While we only get glimpses of the Claire who might’ve existed before her back and heart became racked with pain, it’s obvious that Claire was somebody that many people cared for. She’s pushed them away for what is revealed to be solid reasons. The pain of her losses never leaves Aniston’s face, even in the moments when she is smiling.
I’m not going to say Aniston disappears into this role just because she isn’t wearing makeup and dispenses of her normally sunny side. She’s played dour people before, and she’s played them well (The Good Girl). So, for me, this isn’t as drastic a dramatic turn as many critics have described. I’ve always viewed her as very talented, so her effectiveness here doesn’t surprise me.
Even though we learn some of the reasons behind the tragedies Claire has endured, many of the details remain shrouded. Some critics have found this frustrating, and punished the film for it. I think it’s one of the film’s many virtues. Not knowing exactly why Claire is in pain somehow makes her struggle all the more vivid and compelling.