You’ve probably heard that Jennifer Aniston looks a little rough in Cake. It’s true. She plays Claire, a car-accident survivor who’s struggling with chronic pain, and she has scars on her body, a haggard look on her face, and hair that’s so stringy it could have been shampooed with chlorine and bacon grease. When it comes to awards-show-bait dramas like Cake, which earned Aniston a Golden Globe nomination, that’s supposed to be part of the appeal. Moviegoers so love to see Hollywood beauties stripped of their vanity—underneath all those fancy, placenta-infused beauty products, they look just like us!—that we’re expected to applaud when they’re rewarded for it. But the idea that Aniston should be celebrated for ”going ugly,” as the women of The View put it, is condescending both to regular women (how is it ”ugly” to look like an average fortysomething human with a perfect yoga body and a few scars?) and to Aniston herself, whose understated performance is far more nuanced than her bad drugstore make-up suggests. Besides, it’s a little weird to heroize Aniston for looking ”ugly” when the whole point of the film is not to heroize Claire for enduring something so much worse.
What exactly that ”something” is, Cake doesn’t reveal until midway through the movie. But it’s clear from the start that Claire doesn’t want your pity. When we first meet her, she’s in a support group for chronic-pain sufferers, listening to others grapple with the suicide of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a pretty young mother who once sat among them. Urged by the group leader (Felicity Huffman) to share her feelings about Nina’s death, Claire recaps the gory details of the suicide, upsetting everyone. ”I hate it when suicides make it easy on the survivors,” she deadpans.
Cake doesn’t want to make Claire easy on us, either. Too selfish to be a martyr, she forces her Mexican housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza, who’s excellent here), to risk arrest by driving to Tijuana and smuggling pain pills back for her privileged boss. Claire is so bent on remaining miserable that she’s alienated her nice-guy husband (Chris Messina), her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), and her support-group leader, who ousts her from the circle. When Nina starts appearing to Claire in a series of hallucinations, Claire chooses to imagine her as a punishing shrew—hardly the warm-fuzzy, ghost-of-Christmas-past vision that would allow for any ”healing.” It would be tempting to see Claire as either a monster or a sad victim, but Aniston sidesteps those traps, playing the character simply as a woman who’s brutally honest with herself and others. Her rant against Orange County residents is painfully on target. That is what makes her admirable, more than surviving tragedy: She just says whatever she’s thinking out loud.
Aniston works so hard to avoid sentimentality that it’s disappointing when it creeps into the film. Director Daniel Barnz casts everything in a blue-yellow light that oversells the melancholy mood. Silvana’s devotion to a white boss who treats her badly is slightly uncomfortable. And a subplot involving Nina’s handsome husband (Sam Worthington) and their redheaded, Campbell’s Soup Kid-faced son feels tacked on to make Claire more likable. Still, the smaller scenes that focus on the everyday reality of depression stick with you, such as the shots of Claire lying awake in the middle of the night, uncomfortable in her own body, fighting to get back to sleep. Watching these scenes, you might forget that Aniston’s pillow-creased face is supposed to be the draw here. That wasn’t such a big risk for Aniston. Trusting that there’s an audience out there for any film, even a good one, about chronic pain? Now, that’s brave. B+