The film opens on a teary-eyed chronic pain group draped in muted pinks and tans as they cope with a member’s suicide.
The film opens on a teary-eyed chronic pain group draped in muted pinks and tans as they cope with a member’s suicide. Claire Bennet (Jennifer Aniston) pipes up in a black sweater with gruesome details concerning the nature of the death and the family’s struggle with attaining a week-old corpse back from Mexico after the woman leapt from the interstate onto a truck headed to Tijuana.
Needless to say, Claire was asked to find another group.
The 2014 drama “Cake” follows Claire on her journey to find healing after a traumatic accident that left her childless with pins in her legs and back. Director Daniel Barnz succeeded in producing an interpretation of debilitating pain while juggling sources of hurt. Physical — and metaphysical — scars mask Claire’s motives and depth, so Aniston’s work in evoking pain on multiple levels stands out from her comedic roles in the past. The script gives no hints toward a happy ending and stays truthful to many who suffer from chronic pain caused by another hand. Claire slouches on through stages of grief, yet we never learn for whom she mourns — those lost or herself.
A synopsis of the film reads like slow day at the movies — woman with chronic pain shuffles around; bitterness and broken relationships ensue — but the real story stems from what she doesn’t do. The lack of speed aids the reveal as viewers sew together pieces of this woman’s story. Audiences grip Aniston’s character as she wanders to high ledges and stays too long under water to see if she can find either physical or emotional healing before she slips.
Claire is the cynic that greases trips to the pharmacy with guilt — her only friends at this stage are a Latina housekeeper (Adriana Barazza) and a possum that stands pool-side during insomnia-induced night swims.
Shaky hand-cam filming adds to Claire’s mental insecurity, and jarring cuts between scenes break threads of joy before they’re full grown. The dream sequences with Anna Kendrick have high potential for tackiness, yet they blend with Claire’s hallucinations and explain deeper desires, one desire being to make a cake from scratch.
Tabloids couldn’t capture a worse hair-do than Aniston’s character’s hair for this film. She and her group members all exhibit signs of bedhead and heavy bags under their eyes, yet this reflects the exact level of inexplicable, eternal pain that hinders even the simplest lifestyle. She shuffles around Southern California in TOMS, loose pajama pants and a t-shirt topped with a flowing sweater. Claire dons similar attire for swimming, which is juxtaposed with the snug swimsuits of the elderly ladies in the therapy pool.
For those with chronic pain, “I’m good” means “I’m managing” with no hallucinations. Zero improvement in mobility over six months led Claire to losing a therapist and support group and more medical dependency. Aniston delivers with a face holding deep scars and empty eyes as she washes down more Percoset and Oxycotin with wine.
The film itself guides the viewer into Claire’s life by juxtaposing moments of pain with peace. Almost 70 percent of the film illustrates pain as Claire reclines in a vehicle — uprights seats are too stiff — but the other 30 percent illustrate quiet moment in pool that softens pangs or on ledges that whisper of easing pain.
There are lighter moments, a sort of black comedy, that add levity. Claire seeks medication in Mexico, but without a prescription, she hides the pills in a statue of St. Jude, the least religious statue she could find who happens to be the patron saint of lost and desperate causes.
The film carries a soft, creamy palette with scant use of reds and greens. This was an odd choice — most films are in yellow-blue palettes — but it was a genius choice. Painting the entire canvas beige is the best way to make color pop. Red marks passion and green is either growing or sickly depending on the shade, so each usage subconsciously assists the viewer in grasping mood before dialogue begins. The one time Claire helps someone, she stands in a vibrant city square in Mexico, but as soon as her bitterness creeps back in, the pale shades seep in with it.
Careful pings of bass and strings carry the musical score over the scenes. Each beat flicks another pressure point as Claire eases into the fully reclined passenger seat on the way to another appointment. The chords themselves mimic Claire’s internal discord when the beat rides in time with her pulsing migraine. Yet the pinging dies out in moments of peace like swimming, peering off a high ledge or admiring marble gravestones. This silence reflects peace — the viewer feels less anxious too — yet loftier moments of joy are heralded by wind chimes. The symbol marks her swimming pool and other key places that prompt Claire’s emotional memories, so its use in the score marks the director’s insight in creating a holistic message of the film.
Overall, “Cake” draws attention to a condition that usually goes unnoticed by the public eye with this unhappy story and a plot that moves inches. Yet the level of skill that crafted this film makes it worthwhile.
"Cake" is rated R for bitter adult language; there is little sex and no violence or gore.
— Cheyenne Derksen for the McPherson Sentinel Editorial Board.