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Non-Review Review: Cake

Cake is very much a performance piece, in the style of Wild. It is a film built around a fantastic central performance that lives or dies based on the strength of that performance. The film itself is almost irrelevant – a collection of familiar emotional and character beats given life by a stellar cast that are all present to support a lead actor offering what is clearly intended to be a career-defining (or even -defying) performance.

Cake is a movie that is carried by Jennifer Aniston’s superb and moving central performance as a woman living with chronic pain – literal and emotional. It is a movie that could easily seem crass or exploitive, focusing on a physically incapacitated and mentally damaged woman who is trying to piece her life back together. Director Daniel Barnz and writer Patrick Tobin find themselves walking a very fine line.

St. Jude, don't make it bad...

St. Jude, don’t make it bad…

Cake manages to stay on the right side of that line. Barnz might be a little fond of long tracking shots of Jennifer Aniston being driven through areas covered by foliage, and Tobin’s script occasionally seems like it is trying just a little bit too hard, but the film itself is comfortable enough to allow Aniston the spotlight. Cake is very much an actor’s vehicle, and it is unashamedly so.

Aniston does great work here, demonstrating the same credibility and vulnerability that she brought to The Good Girl, another example of the performer playing largely against type. Aniston fleshes out the character of Claire Bennett, taking an arc that is perhaps a little too familiar and too formulaic, and gives the role an emotional core that holds everything together. It is a great performance in a solid film.

It all goes rather swimmingly...

It all goes rather swimmingly…

Cake really doesn’t hold too many surprises. The structure and style of the story are such that the movie intrinsically makes sense. There’s no clumsy exposition or awkward info-dump to explain the plot; the story is very clearly self-evident. Tobin’s script is almost minimalistic in places, Cake trusts its audience to follow the movie along. It doesn’t without information so much as it avoids wasting time telling the audience what they already know.

The character arcs and plot beats are pretty clearly mapped out from the opening scenes, and Cake never really has an emotional swerve. The script is almost mechanically efficient – it takes off and lands with precision control, never really hitting any turbulence, but never soaring. It is easy to dismiss the efficiency on display, Cake has a very clear sense of its own identity and never seems uncertain with itself.

A border case...

A border case…

Similarly, Daniel Barnz does largely what is expected when directing a film like this. He is happy to give his actors the room that they need to work, and never tries to force the film to move at a pace beyond that at which it is comfortable. It would be unfair to describe Barnz’s style as “workmanlike”, even if it never feels like he is completely in control of the film. It is a relaxed style, but one that is proficient.

Cake has more than its fair share of visual metaphors and recurring imagery; it has enough of an identity that it doesn’t just feel like clutter around a mesmerising central performance. The movie likes to focus on sky-related imagery, understandable for a film about death and impairment. Whether it is the foliage that always seems to block Claire’s view or the shark-shaped kite or the wind-chime on the tree, Cake knows what it is.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

It is perhaps too much to describe Cake as “confident.” It is a movie that never really asserts itself, that never plays with the familiar patterns it mimics. The movie hits on just about every narrative trope that the audience might expect in a film like this tackling this subject matter. There is enough humour to defuse the heavier material, enough cynicism that the upbeat developments feel earned. Cake is made to a familiar recipe, but it is made well at that.

If one can excuse a clumsy (and predictable) metaphor, it is Jennifer Aniston who provides Cake with its sumptuous filling. Aniston offers an emotionally exposed and vulnerable central performance about a woman who is dealing with tremendous (and almost unfathomable) pain. Aniston breaths life into the film, balancing the movie’s darker meditations with dry wit and superb comic timing.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

Aniston is ably supported by a fantastic cast. Anna Kendrick plays a former member of Claire’s support group who continues to haunt Claire’s life – bringing both an impish malice and an endearing sincerity to the role. Adriana Barraza does great work as Claire’s put-upon maid, Silvana. William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman both do good work with very small roles in the film.

Cake is exactly what it claims to be. It is an actor showcase built around a very strong central performance. It is a movie that requires Aniston to carry it, and she obliges. The result is not necessarily revelatory or

2 Responses

  1. Aniston does dig deeper here, than she’s done with any other role before, but that doesn’t make her, nor the movie, necessarily good. Just more interesting, I guess. Good review.

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