Directed by Daniel Barnz (“Won’t Back Down,” “Beastly”), and written by Patrick Tobin, the new movie “Cake” seemed promising, but there were missing ingredients. Like a cake made with artificial sweetener, it wasn’t as great as I hoped.
The film revolves around Claire (Jennifer Aniston), a middle-aged woman suffering from chronic pain. She abuses drugs, suffers from hallucinations, and flirts with suicide. Prickly and self-absorbed, she doesn’t have any friends. Her husband no longer lives with her. No one comes to visit.
When Claire is ostracized by her support group after making insensitive comments about a group member’s recent suicide, her circle of acquaintances shrinks, and she endeavors to befriend the husband of the deceased. Her other “friends” include the gardener she occasionally hooks up with, her physical therapist, and her hired help, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). At first it appears that her pain is purely physical, but slowly the emotional scars that lay hidden come to light, and it’s clear that her emotional pain is more excruciating than her physical pain.
Unfortunately, Claire uses her pain as a tool to take advantage of people. She manipulates the self-help group leader into divulging confidential information. She stalks the husband of the deceased group member, hoping to receive free suicide advice and steal the deceased’s pain meds. She forces Silvana, her green-card carrying employee, to risk crossing the Mexican border in order to help her acquire drugs illegally.
America’s sweetheart Jennifer Aniston broke away from her expected role of “main character’s girlfriend in a romantic comedy” and appeared in theaters without make-up or her iconic hairdo. It’s a welcome change, and Aniston deserves the praise she has received for her performance in “Cake,” a film she also produced. But needless to say, it’s difficult to like Claire. I empathized with her and hoped I’d never experience the same situation, but if I met her in real life, I’d run the other way.
The missing ingredient in all of this is Claire herself, as her character remains a mystery. We don’t see her life before or after her tragedy. Did pain turn a wonderful person into a misanthrope, or was she always that way? Does she become a kinder, empathetic person because she suffered? We don’t know. There are little changes in Claire’s actions that give a glimmer of hope that she’ll heal and become the person she once was, but it’s not enough. The audience never sees Claire happy, except in pictures, so it’s difficult to compare her life pre- and post-tragedy. We can’t get a full picture of her.
The real gem in this film is Silvana. While lunching in Mexico, Claire asks about the statuette used to conceal the drugs, and Silvana explains that it is St. Jude, the patron saint for desperate cases and lost causes. In many ways, Silvana is St. Jude. She prays over Claire at the hospital. She preserves the children’s toys that Claire attempts to discard from her home, the painful memories of her previous life. She shows up at just the right time to rescue Claire during one of her many suicide attempts. Unlike Claire, a woman privileged enough to attend law school at UCLA and enjoy the luxuries a successful career allows, Silvana doesn’t have much. She lives in a small apartment. She endures the ridicule of her friends. Even though she is the hired help, Silvana exemplifies the humility required to be a true friend to her employer. Unfortunately, it’s one-sided.
This is the most heartbreaking part of the film—not Claire’s past tragedy or physical pain, but her inability to empathize with others, befriend them, or even notice their pain. Claire isn’t a lost cause; some of her pain she brought on herself by pushing people away. Like Orual in C. S. Lewis’ novel “Till We Have Faces,” Claire builds a wall around herself and blames everyone else. Unfortunately, Claire doesn’t seem to come to the same conclusion as Orual.
The film does serve as a reminder that no one living on this earth can escape the reality of pain and sorrow. Jesus Himself, when he walked the earth, was a man of sorrow. Those raised in church can easily recall the pain and sorrow Jesus experienced his last week on earth, but He also wept when his friend died. He wept over Jerusalem. In the midst of suffering, He didn’t abandon His friends—they abandoned Him.
Of course, one could argue it’s natural to avoid friends and family in the midst of pain and that self-medicating is excusable, but is it possible to have freedom from this state of mind? Lewis thought so, and other Christians would agree that the difference between a non-Christian and a Christian isn’t that one grieves and the other doesn’t. Rather, the believer grieves with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). This doesn’t mean Christians put on a smile no matter what and ignore reality, but it does suggest that Christians don’t have to hurt other people in the midst of suffering. Christians have the power to love others in the midst of pain, something Claire isn’t able to do.
Lovers of independent film will naturally value this movie. It’s not a sequel; it doesn’t use computer graphics to overcompensate for lack of character analysis; it’s not a romantic comedy, but a movie that presents more of life’s reality. It is, in short, original. On the other hand, the film is at times too slow, and at times it feels like little more than a vehicle for Aniston to show what she can do. In the end, I appreciated the film, but not enough to highly recommend it. There just isn’t enough redeeming value.
Image copyright Cinelou Releasing. “Cake” is rated R for language, substance abuse, and brief sexuality.
Ashley Chandler, a graduate of Columbia International University and St. John’s College, teaches, reads, and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina.