No Sugar Coating

Main Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza

Director: Daniel Barnz

When you think of Jennifer Aniston, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Unless you were in a coma for the entire 1990s, it’s going to be the TV show Friends and her ill-fated marriage to Brad Pitt.   That combo (and a certain ubiquitous hairstyle) turned her into tabloid fodder back then and she hasn’t ever really been allowed to escape. She’s made a lot of romantic comedies since her show ended, but none of them ever showed how much talent she has as a serious dramatic actress as the little indie that could – Cake.

Cake stars Aniston as Claire Bennett. We first meet Claire at a support group meeting, where a group of women is desperately trying to deal with the suicide death of one of their members. Claire is having a hard time listening to the coping strategies devised by the group’s leader (Felicity Huffman) and ends up using her turn to be angry, bitchy and inappropriate. Turns out that’s sort of Claire’s MO, and that her support group is for sufferers of chronic pain.

The bulk of the film has Claire dealing with her own illness/injury and becoming more than a little obsessed with the woman from the group who killed herself (played by Anna Kendrick). Sometimes it seems to her like the perfect remedy to all that ails her, and she wants to know about this woman who went through with it. Along the way, we learn her story.

Most of the time, when we learn a character’s story in bits and pieces through the course of a movie, it’s an obvious devise. We need to know these things from the past to understand what this person is doing now. In Cake, it becomes much more than that. As we get bits and pieces of Claire’s history, we come to see the fragmentation as a manifestation of pain. Physical and emotional pain so horrible she can only bare but the briefest recollections before escaping with pills, or wine, or both. She isn’t likable, she’s awful. She’s mean and withdrawn and uncooperative. She pushed her husband away (underplayed beautifully by Chris Messina), she’s nothing but a thorn in the side of her housekeeper/caregiver, and after her outburst she’s been kicked out of her support group. She holding onto life by only the most tenuous of threads, and one of them is her phantom connection to a dead woman.

It sounds strange, I know. And on some levels, it is – very. But what Cake mostly comes down to is a spot on portrayal by Jennifer Aniston of a woman in agony. Chronic, perpetual agony on every level. The physical pain you see in her face and her posture. The emotional pain you read in her eyes and feel in her anger. It’s an absolutely outstanding performance, one that surprised the hell out of me with its depth and terrible, beautiful nuance.

I watched this movie with someone who hates, hates, hates movies with medical plot lines. They’re never realistic to someone who treats actual patients every day and the inaccuracies and oversimplifications drive him crazy. We both cried during Cake. He saw it as a remarkably sensitive and true portrayal of the complexities and consequences of living with chronic pain. His only remark was that most chronic pain patients also suffer from financial tragedy as a result of their condition – something Claire did not experience.   A forgivable bit of poetic license, to be sure.

If you decide to give this film a try (it was streaming on Netflix when we watched it) be absolutely sure to have tissues handy and choose a watching companion with whom you are comfortable blubbering. I haven’t seen a movie in a long time that moved me to give it 5 stars, but Cake did just that. If you can handle a tear jerker, I highly recommend it.

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