Film Review: Cake

Ever since Matthew McConaughey went from zero to hero as a result of an amazing visual transformation and startling stand-out performances on both the big (Dallas Buyers Club) and small (True Detective) screens people have been throwing themselves to label any performance, that is slightly outside what is naturally expected, by any actor whose career has floundered, as the start of another ‘renaissance’. First it was Jake Gyllenhaal with Nightcrawler, then Reese Witherspoon with Wild and now it’s Jennifer Aniston in Daniel Barnz’s Cake.

People actually went as far as to say that Aniston would be verging on an 2015 Oscar nomination for her performance, that is how good it apparently was and that perked my interest in the film. Annoyingly though, while it was released last February, it had a very limited cinema run and so, I have had to wait for it to arrive “on demand” before I’ve got a chance to see it, but all that time it’s been stuck in my mind, this seed of expectation around Aniston’s turn firmly rooted.

Jennifer Aniston - Oscars 2015

Cake is essentially a story about mental health and post traumatic stress disorder. Focusing around the character Claire (played by Aniston) the film tries to show the pain and self destructive difficulties and routines that can happen as the result of life taking a turn for the worse. The end result being a film which splits in two narratively and comes across very melancholic and cold throughout but laced with a difficult and narcissistic personality. It was this underlying theme that actually left me feeling uncomfortable. It was like I was watching the cinematic portrayal of a taboo. There is a stigma and difficulty around mental health, people don’t like to talk about it, so to be forced to confront it head on, and then have the self centred, aggressive and manipulative elements of it brought so much to the front removed any chance of enjoyment from it.

Turning to Jennifer Aniston though, her performance is certainly transformative. Gone is any connection to the role of Rachel in Friends that made her famous and I’d even go further and say that she is virtually unrecognisable to that of her recent film Life of Crime. It helped that the tone and subject of Cake didn’t call for her usual glamour and makeup but rather for her to simply shuffle around, appearing constantly tired, weathered and worn-out which she manages well. It is made the constant distant stare that niggles away and convinces you most and over all, everything is so different to her usual style and such a good performance of “repulsively depressive” that I can see why the rumours of Oscar nominations surrounded her at the time.

The problem is though the film around her is just not good enough to back her up. In fact I’d go as far as to say her performance held back by the film, never managing to break free of it and when you compare her performance of handling an aspect of Mental Health to Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine or Julianne Moore in Still Alice (the previous two Leading Actress Oscar winners) you can just see just how far short of the winners post she ends up being.

Jenifer Aniston & Chris Messina - Cake

Don’t get me wrong, I fully believed in Aniston. She brought her character to life with a clarity that packs a sizeable and believable punch, you just cannot engage with her, or really warm or like her. She created a huge amount of empathy in me, because I understood and could see the pain she was in and the torture she was suffering, but that was all, I just pitied that she was going through this rather than really liking her and wanting to help her.

For me, the film’s attempt to tackle a difficult subject matter in mental health, worked completely against it. It boxes the pace of the film into a corner from which it cannot escape. The subject matter forces the film to be naturally dreary and lifeless and the end result is everything being slowed down too much. Cake constantly sticks to the same melancholic first gear never attempted to speed up and while, thankfully, not a long film, it really does feel it’s length and by the end of it I felt liked I’ve been dragged through all 100 minutes and then some.

Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Patrick Tobin & Sam Worthington - Cake

The biggest surprise to me, however, was how much the rest of the supporting cast let the film down. The film naturally focuses all of its dejected attention onto Aniston as you’d expect but when it attempts to remove her from her bubble and bring others in, it constantly fails to work. Firstly, her relationship Adriana Barraza as her housekeeper should have been maternal and protective and warming but I detested Barraza’s harshness so much that I didn’t want to be around her. Even worse though is the fact the film attempts to question love and romance through romantic angles with Sam Worthington and Chris Messina but does so in such a shallow and unadventurous way that it creates more questions than answers and just confuses you by presenting characters with no backstory or explanation. I never knew them so never accepted how they acted.

Worse still though is the introduction of Anna Kendrick. She should be there to help answer the fundamental question at the heart of the movie. The entire pain around which the film rotates. And instead of providing a narrative debate on some very deep and difficult themes and questions she comes across as more of a parody and it felt more like the film was making fun of her reason to exist.

The problem with Cake is that when the story tries to expand beyond just the visual symptoms, to question, ponder and answer the themes at it’s very heart it falls badly. It almost feels as though they didn’t have the experience to tackle them, that they didn’t really believe in the subject or have the knowledge to provide the depth it needed. There is a powerful film hidden in the idea but the execution failed to bring it out. Having waited patiently for Cake, I can see why Aniston got the plaudits for her role at the time, but I can also see why they never went any further than words on a page or rumours in the night. She’s simply the best thing in a flat and lifeless film that is ultimately frustrating becua.

6 out of 10 stars (6 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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