Despite a slow start, this film ultimately moves you on such a personal level, that you don’t even really want to cry, as you would in most American melodramas. Instead, you feel shocked and fairly numb, almost like you’re grieving for a loved one yourself. This is largely due to wonder woman Jennifer Aniston, who gives such a generous performance that you feel like you’re abandoning a friend when you leave the auditorium.
Like Mathew McConnaughey’s widely publicised McConnaissance last year, based on this spellbinding central performance, Aniston is likely to be entering into an entirely transformative period in her career.
Its hard to review this film without giving anything away, as its appeal lies in the slow peeling back of layers; concerning both the causes of Claire’s (Aniston) physical and psychological pain, as well as the nuances to her character, played with utter conviction and acerbic, dry wit by Aniston.
It concerns Claire, a middle aged women bereaving her child who died in the same car accident that she survived. As part of a talking support group, she becomes fascinated and haunted by the suicide of a fellow member, Nina, who committed suicide by jumping off a dual-carriageway. Indeed, the only gripe to be had with this film is the bizarre way in which scenes where we see the ghost of Nina are shot; in a cartoonish, farcical manner which detracts from the artistic credibility of the rest of the film (they are reminiscent of the scenes in Grease where Vince Fontaine, the heartthrob singer materializes from the clouds). Is it really necessary to show Nina lounging on a lilo, sipping a pina colada in a halo of golden sunshine? It just strikes a very grating note and doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film.
Nonetheless, in no recent movies has there been such an accurate depiction of depression and the crippling effects it has on both the victim and those around them. Aniston’s physicality, whilst not quite up there with the level of sheer mastery Eddie Redmayne deployed in The Theory of Everything, is heartbreaking to watch as she whimpers and winces with her every move, unable to even sit upright in a car due to the pain.
We see her self-destructive behaviour as she lies, has painful, empty sex with a man to whom she then decides to give a box of her son’s toys, and charmingly manipulates her doctor and overdoses at various points.
Furthermore, it’s a relief that, breaking from typical romantic-comedy fashion, she isn’t ‘saved’ by a man. At one point it appears that the film is heading in this direction with the introduction of Nina’s widower (Sam Worthington), but Claire’s slow recovery comes very much from within herself. Refreshingly empowering.
Patrick Tobin, the screenwriter deserves every accolade for the way in which he has structured this story to convincingly show a women grappling to maintain her grasp on reality despite having isolated herself from those who love her in a bid to ignore her deep inner pain. Simultaneously, as her vulnerabilities begin to surface, she finds reasons to live, and it is a film which highlights the importance of a strong sense of humour in getting through difficult times. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison, in particular in a hazy, dreamlike scene where Aniston re-enters, for the first time, her son’s bedroom shows Claire’s gradual self-forgiveness.
Hope is the central idea which drives this film forward. Critics have argued that it is too sugarcoated, Americanised, lacking in depth…but I think it is a film which embraces sentimentality and the outward expression of emotion, showing the cathartic benefits of honest self-expression when surviving trauma. After all, death provokes the most extreme emotions within us all. But Cake avoids the melodramatic and contains enough real heart, humour and sincerity to appeal to all but the coldest of hearts.