What it's about:
After a young woman in her grief-counselling group commits suicide, Claire Bennett finds herself becoming obsessed with the woman's life and suicide, all the while dealing with her own tragedy.
What we thought:
Coming hot on the heels of Still Alice and soon to be followed by The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Wild, Cake is – and not to be too flippant about this – yet another story about a woman coming to terms with her own tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, it's also by far the weakest of this current crop of tragi-dramas.
As the film itself is weirdly very reluctant to reveal the nature of the tragedy at the centre of its story, I won't reveal it here, but suffice it to say that whatever else is wrong with it – and frankly, there's quite a bit – Cake is at the very least an unquestionably sincere and presumably well-intended expression of life at its toughest. It's an unflinching, largely unsentimental take on grief, depression and self-destruction, featuring Jennifer Aniston at her all-time least glamorous.
It's also, it has to be said, about as much fun to watch as its subject suggests.
There's a very fine line, when it comes to these sorts of films, between accurately representing their true-to-life toughness and creating a compelling drama that emotionally engrosses, rather than repulses, their audience. Still Alice certainly managed this and, not to jump ahead, but so did Wild and, to a lesser extent, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. They're often difficult to watch, their characters aren't always entirely likeable and they're strictly not recommended viewing for people who are in particularly depressed state of mind, but they're also – again to varying degrees – emotionally and narratively compelling and make plenty use of both hope and humour to leaven their despair.
Cake, on the other hand, has all of these films' challenges but none of their rewards. Director Daniel Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin are all too happy to lay on the pathos, the depression and the misanthropy but they seem far less interested in crafting a satisfying drama. It's slow, leaden and relentlessly dull and though the supporting cast do what they can to enliven the proceedings, not even a surprisingly malevolent Anna Kendrick as the dead girl, nor even a show-stealing performance from Adriana Barraza as Claire's long-suffering Mexican maid, can save the film from its truly hateful lead character.
Considering just how hard the film works to show how horrible a time of it she's had, you would think that Claire Bennett would be a character you could at least sympathize with, if not necessarily like. And yet, though you can't help but feel technically sorry for her, Claire Bennett is a total pain in the ass to spend any time with at all. She's the sort of person that if you knew her in real life, you'd probably be compelled to send a pie or a casserole her way out of a mix of pity, duty and guilt, but would do whatever you possibly could to avoid actually seeing her.
Aniston is unquestionably fearless in her attempts to pull off the character's misanthropic nastiness but it's unclear whether she is under served by a terrible character or if the character is under served by her acting. Despite being stuck playing Rachel from Friends for most of her career, Aniston is a perfectly OK actress, but however much she tries in Cake, she may have just bitten off more than she can chew here. Well, either that or the “Cake” in question is simply too tough and too sour for even the best actors in the world to take a hearty bite of.
While Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Chastain all play undeniably flawed characters in their respective films, they are all nuanced and sympathetic enough performers that their characters are imbued with plenty of depth and humanity, even at their lowest moments. Aniston, however, may more than convince as a cold-hearted, callous bitch, but you never really get the sense that there's any more to her character than that – especially, oddly enough, when the film attempts to go for the old redemption angle in its final act. But, again, maybe I'm being unfair on Ms Aniston: it's every bit as possible that she simply doesn't have what to work with here. Either way though, whoever is to blame, Claire Bennett is a major black hole that sucks in all the remaining light, not to say life, from the rest of the film.
Which is a pity because, on its outskirts at least, there was plenty of light to be had.
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