Twenty-first-century Bad Girls come in two basic kinds: the evil beauties of noir who get away with it, and the hags who scorn the niceties of grooming and sex appeal and let themselves go. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl is an example of the transgressive beauty, easier on the eyes, but not likely to win an Academy Award. Charlize Theron in Monster, Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake are deglamorized harridans who earn kudos for acting, but may forfeit audience sympathy. Movies in the post–Production Code era may be more open than in the past to oddball women, but the double standard of sympathy still prevails: male protagonists can get away with every kind of vile behavior, whereas a female nasty will elicit cries of “Kill the Bitch!”
In this context of proliferating bitches, Aniston’s embrace in Cake of a woman who radiates pain and ill will is perhaps not earth-shattering but it’s still pretty damn gutsy. It’s a risky career move—if not exactly the radical departure heralded by feature writers announcing that Aniston is “finally” escaping her America’s Sweetheart, cheerleader-wholesome image from Friends. Some of us said this way back in 2002, when Rachel traded her smile, her high-gloss hair, and her pom-poms for the surly personality of a supermarket checkout girl in The Good Girl. That didn’t change Aniston’s career or we wouldn’t be having the same conversation now. It did tell us she could do something different and more interesting, and the opportunities have apparently been few.
In Cake, she plays Claire, a woman living in Los Angeles who has been scarred, both deeply and superficially, by a tragic car accident, the extent of which we learn only later and incrementally. We first meet her in a support group for people with chronic pain, where the discussion revolves around the suicide of a fellow sufferer (Anna Kendrick, who will reappear as a tempter from the beyond). The session is tense with dark humor as various scenarios for the suicide are imagined, and a cringe-making Aniston violates every rule of groupthink by refusing to “share” in the bromides uttered by her cohorts. Ultimately her refusal to talk the talk of closure gets her thrown out.
The scene is splendid . . . and shocking. The bitterness of her condition is nowhere more evident than in her dirty lanky hair. She looks years older in the way that pain ages, her scar-covered skin is pasty, her shapeless body slumped over in despair, her eyes as lifeless as her hair. There is no sense of artifice, of prosthetics; she inhabits her pain.
Her days are marked and divided by outings for drugs and the taking of drugs, and the sense of isolation is reinforced by the landscape of impersonal highways and byways of Los Angeles. We wince at Claire’s walking-on-eggshells gait. The pain is her identity, her defense, her way of keeping the world at bay—a world that must inevitably include the audience, since the self-absorption of pain can only repel.
The exception is Claire’s Mexican housekeeper Silvana, played wondrously by Adriana Barraza (Thor, Amores Perros), whose devotion to Claire, even at the expense of her own children, is both mysterious and utterly compelling. The movie is astutely aware of class, of racial divisions and resentments, but it understands the way feeling can cross lines. In a way, Silvana’s relationship with Claire is similar to that of Mammy’s with Scarlett: the belle is a bitch, but because someone we love and admire loves her, we come to love her, too—or at least make allowances. We are implicated in the emotional transaction: the caretaker has somehow touched the vulnerability at the core of this woman, and the bond is reciprocal.
Pain is Claire’s way of somatizing her grief, freezing it into a monolithic block of forgetfulness. But the audience is shut out as well, prevented from revisiting the accident, learning what part guilt plays in Claire’s elaborate defense. Details emerge by dribs and drabs, too little too late, and the elephant in the room (spoiler alert: dead child) is avoided like the too-easy bid for sympathy it is.
For all the virtuosity of Aniston’s threnody of pain, director Daniel Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin haven’t found a way to maintain the initial level of anguish—and humor!—and go deeper and more penetratingly into character or imagine a richer sense of context. An attempt to “work through” Claire’s suicidal feelings with Sam Worthington as Anna Kendrick’s widower is the closest we come to illuminating the shadings of Claire’s urges.
The supporting cast are fine but function more as cameos. Felicity Huffman is especially sharp as the group leader with her own psych-speak agenda, but William H. Macy is ineffectual in a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t walk-on. None of these expand our sense of the Claire who preceded the pain and will emerge from it—and of how she will emerge, how changed and unchanged. What about her husband, briefly seen? Did she drive him away? What was their marriage like? Mightn’t details of her life before the accident tell us something about the specific contours of her agony, even its extremity?
Pain in itself isn’t drama, and a poor scaffolding to build a film on. Like addiction, pain is a condition, moreover a condition of passivity—you’re in the grip of something monotonous with a life (or lifelessness) all its own. Cake doesn’t find a way of turning pain into something more than an issue, a problem that must have its solution. A similar problem afflicts Still Alice, the Alzheimer’s drama in which Julianne Moore, excellent as she is, is defined by how she deals with the onset of dementia. Such ordeals, whether doomed or ending in triumph, are better served in a TV Movie of the Week format.
Still, it will be a pity if viewers are too put off by the subject to see Aniston’s bravura turn, a tour de force that also tells us something about what we can and can’t accept in women’s performances, our threshold for unlikability and unprettiness. I for one hope we won’t have to wait another 12 years for this talented actress to have another “breakout” role.