It seems like Jennifer Aniston has been trying to get away from the whole “Rachel on ‘Friends’ ” thing since, like, forever, with only limited success. She’s tried romantic comedy (“The Object of My Affection”), dark comedy (“The Good Girl”), action comedy (“Bounty Hunter”) and just about everything in between. Finally, after over 20 years in feature films, Aniston has the role she’s been looking for in “Cake.” But it’s unfortunate that the film is not equal to her ferociously good performance.
Looking as if she’s just emerged from a particularly nasty bar fight, Aniston plays Clair Bennett, victim of a car crash that has killed her young son and left her with chronic pain syndrome. She’s scarred both physically and psychologically, and her only enjoyment seems to be sleeping with strange men, treating people badly – particularly her housekeeper Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza) – and popping pain pills. She’s a mess, and a full-on SOB, to boot.
So it’s no surprise that she’s kicked out of her chronic pain support group when she ridicules the suicide of a former member. But then that woman (Anna Kendrick) starts appearing to her in her fantasies, which leads Aniston to seek out the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington), in a rather misguided attempt to find out how he’s dealing with his own pain.
This is about when director Daniel Barnz’s film starts to run off the tracks. Even though the Aniston and Worthington characters don’t have sex – which would be an unforgivable cliché – their relationship seems unreal and strained. This is all of a piece with the director’s inability to maintain a consistent tone throughout the film, which veers from reality to fantasy to occasional stabs at black humor. (Kendrick’s scenes are particularly ludicrous.)
And things aren’t helped by the appearance of several secondary characters whose existence seems utterly unnecessary – like William H. Macy, who appears in a scene that seems to come out of nowhere.
Barnz obviously wanted to make a film about loss and grief, and how to move beyond them, and there’s no question that Aniston plays the part of a suffering woman to perfection. But after a while, the suffering becomes – forgive me – insufferable, and you start to wonder when Aniston’s character will get over herself, stop treating Barraza like a dog, and move on.
Full disclosure: I always thought Courteney Cox was the real looker on “Friends,” and Aniston was just some cutie-pie, paint-by-numbers, blond male fantasy. And not all that talented, either. But in “Cake,” Aniston shows that she’s got the goods, the ability to delve into a complex, not particularly likable, character and make her thoroughly believable. If only the film were as good as its star.