Let it be said: Jennifer Aniston’s performance in Daniel Barnz’s Cake is fantastic. Just look at that punim above! It’s not just an Oscar-baiting punim, it’s the punim of an actor convincingly embodying a very pained character! Let it also be said: it shouldn’t be a surprise that Aniston’s performance would be fantastic — she killed it in Nicole Holofcener’s Friends With Money and Mike White’s The Good Girl. But finally, it must be said that Cake is not really good enough to pay attention to, and the only reason people most definitely will is because of that Aniston punim, which, while convincingly pained and convincingly scarred, remains trapped beneath the manipulative emotional anvils the movie drops.
In Cake, which screened Tuesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and will debut in theaters January 23, Aniston plays — and has now been nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe for her role as — Claire Simmons, a woman with chronic pain and scars running up and down her body. In the first scene, while her chronic-pain support group weepingly mourns the suicide of their angelic member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), Claire interrupts the sentimentality with a graphic description of the details of the suicide, concluding, “Way to to go, Nina!” Such insensitivity quickly gets her kicked out of her support group. In fact, via the messages being left on her answering machine, we’re informed that her bitterness is leading to her systemic removal from the many facets of whatever her life once was.
Though I won’t divulge the specifics of that life — there’s a (pretty obvious) loss fueling her cantankerousness — I will say that she becomes obsessed with Nina. Claire hallucinates a modified version of Nina, who, as in the hokiest scenes of Six Feet Under, is a mere projection of her own self-loathing, teasing and mocking in the way any half-baked haunter/inner monologue revealer might. As Claire investigates Nina’s life and death, she finds herself confronting her own demons, exploring the possibility of new relationships, and deepening her friendship with her housekeeper/caretaker, Sylvania (Babel’s Adriana Barraza).
The most compelling quality of Aniston’s performance is the palpability of the character’s physical pain. Often, movies might choose a more grave-sounding ailment to rack up Oscar-baiting sympathy points (recall Dallas Buyers Club), but Cake smartly explores the ways a misinterpreted — and actually very serious — ailment can stunt a person’s life and, as in the case of Nina, drive them to suicide. Aniston’s over-hyped physical “transformation” isn’t what makes her performance stunning: yes, there are scars. No, she doesn’t look like she’s just gotten a blow-out everywhere she goes. And no, she’s not wearing makeup (besides the scars, of course). But otherwise, she just looks like Jennifer Aniston might, I assume, look while walking around her house.
The braver part of the performance is the attempt, on camera, to physically capture what it’s like to be in constant pain — something that could easily come across as goofy, like a pantomime or a Tylenol commercial. But it’s so specific and so studied — the lacerations across Claire’s legs make her look like she was shattered and pieced back together, and the trepidation that precedes Aniston’s movement is cringe-worthily real and remarkable.
It’s a shame, then, that this performance is in the service of such a mediocre film. With its reliance on a dream-sequence motif, its predictable twist, and its predictable narrative of redemption, Cake is unremarkable. And then there’s Adriana Barraza’s character, who the movie somewhat problematically paints as a loyal immigrant-angel. When such an incredible actress has once again been relegated to another role playing “the help” of rich, white Angelenos (as she did in Babel), it’s hard to fixate too much on how Hollywood has held Jennifer Aniston captive in romantic comedy roles. Perhaps the question coming out of this movie should be, “When will an actor like Jennifer Aniston play a supporting role to Barraza’s housekeeper character? Or, better yet, to Barraza not playing a housekeeper character?!” When will the immigrant character not merely be there to save the white lady? The movie grapples with some of these questions, but not quite enough, and ultimately condescends with its near-mystical treatment of Barraza’s character.
And then there was the talkback that happened after the screening of the film at Lincoln Center. There, Columbia professor Annette Insdorf mediated a Q&A between Jennifer Aniston and Anna Kendrick. The professor noted a similarity between Cake and Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. When she asked Aniston whether she’d looked to Juliette Binoche’s performance for inspiration in playing a similarly afflicted woman who “takes refuge in swimming pools,” the actor seemed not to recognize the name “Kieslowski.” She joked, “This has already been done! I honestly didn’t know about that film. Probably better!”
And so the attempt to bring Kieslowski into the conversation was tossed aside. It’s obviously not necessary — especially when it comes to the quality of a performance — for an actor to know everything about film history. But as Cake signifies, for so many, Aniston’s Rebirth As Serious Film Actor, I was struck by what Insdorf’s failure to engage Aniston in a film-historical (and international) discussion said about the insularity of Hollywood and its removal from both the international and independent film worlds. Because in some ways, despite the fact that I’d just watched an impeccable performance, it made Aniston seem like a tourist here. Of course an actor whose life is reduced, by the media, to tawdry headlines like today’s ridiculous, “Should Jennifer Aniston be called selfish for not having kids?” would want to change that by assuming more serious roles. And of course they should.
Still, I can’t help but take issue with the tone of the hype surrounding Cake. When I thought of the awards attention this film is getting, and how it’ll probably do so much better at the box office than other films of its caliber, and the way that far better American and international films are consistently snubbed, I wondered whether it mattered more that Jennifer Aniston was being saved from the fate of forever being trapped in romantic comedies, or that we were continuing to let ourselves be led, via star power, down a mediocre cinematic path. I think Aniston is an excellent actress. And I’ll be less bitter about devoting attention to it the next time she’s also in a good movie.