It may not be the best film utilizing its melancholic subject matter, but Cake is not as bad as the critical sphere appears to want us to believe. The credit for this goes to screenwriter Patrick Tobin for distilling his character’s grief, depression, and malaise into a precisely calculated 102-minute rebirth. We receive a lot of information through the interactions of people, expressive postures towards specific situations, and the blackly comic exchanges on behalf of Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston), a woman desperately trying to hide behind the cynical humor doing its best to push away anyone who might want to help her survive. Tobin gives us the clues to why Claire is so broken physically and emotionally but his film is not about that incident. Instead Cake deals with the difficult discovery that hope is never truly lost.
We meet her psychologically damaged addict idly sitting with a smirk amidst her support group of women with a similar level of chronic pain. This meeting’s topic is discussing the tragic suicide of one of their members, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick). Rather than confront the anger they so clearly have—not solely targeted at the girl’s supposed cowardice but themselves also for not possessing the strength to follow suit—group leader Annette (Felicity Huffman) seeks to force-feed them forgiveness for someone who’ll never be able to accept it. To Claire this simply means sweeping everything under the rug as though it’s not the elephant in the room they each wonder about pursuing. She wants to face its reality head-on, weigh the hardship killing herself would entail, and discover whether there’s a reason to keep living instead.
This is why she begins to hallucinate young Nina as a sort of devil’s advocate pushing her to the brink choosing. She’s already refused her husband’s (Chris Messina) empathy to the point of his moving out; outwardly treats her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) like a slave when she’s the only person left with Claire’s best interests at heart; and begun to lie to doctors for more painkillers as well as drive to Tijuana for an even larger reserve supply. She will not use the cream supposedly able to heal her scars, won’t take physical therapy seriously, and revels in the fact her lack of compassion during group support got her kicked out. With the next logical step in her descent being suicide, it’s only smart that she’d research the process by studying the person she knows who succeeded.
Her education leads her into awkward situations with Annette, Silvana, and ultimately Nina’s widower Roy (Sam Worthington). The former breeds some welcome humor, the second a forum to start piecing together the emotional details of her accident, and the latter a substitute for her husband who unlike him is just as angry as she is. Roy has no qualms with saying he hates his wife for leaving him and their son alone and no reservations against seeking platonic companionship to ease his loneliness. Claire has gone through a steady stream of gentlemen callers in an effort to punish herself for letting Jason go, so spending time with Roy is a comfort she has been without for too long. Seeing how he keeps moving forward for his son is inspiring—a sign declaring it’s possible for her too.
There’s some great stuff in Tobin’s script to implicitly express what Claire feels one minute to the next. We see her at her lowest by herself, her most hopeful in the company of Roy, her kindest—eventually—with Silvana, and her most fierce in a chaotic confrontation with a mystery caller played by William H. Macy. The issue with Cake, however, is in the few instances of excess dancing around what’s otherwise a taut character drama. Stuff like the titular cake being sentimental, cute, and above all else unnecessary. What it stands for, how it’s made, and the deeper psychological connection it provides could have been expressed by simply giving it to its desired receiver. For Tobin to show his hand in contrivance is a disappointment since so much of what came before was effortlessly authentic.
If the majority wasn’t so economically assured I probably wouldn’t have cared for the more manipulative bits, but it was and I do. Director Daniel Barnz does his best to shield a lot of the obviousness of events with stylistic montages and his camera lens almost exclusively pointed at Claire and Aniston delivers the performance of her career to ensure we never bore of the character. In lesser hands it would be easy to resent this woman as wallowing in self-pity without the strength to do emerge. Instead Aniston somehow earns our sympathy with every pained movement made, biting retort spit, and existential query silently asked internally on the subject of remaining alive. Claire is scared and shaken to her core beneath an impenetrably prickly exterior, but not even she realizes it until something’s able to chip away that shell.
A recent movie I thought of while watching is Rabbit Hole and I can’t help thinking Cake could have been great if it simplified itself even further to a more theatrical play-like structure. The basis is there and for many stretches it feels like it is until something happens to show the filmmakers’ brushstrokes. There’s a way to retain the unspoken detail of Claire’s life without rendering it convenient, a way to make the audience work harder and allow the lead to merely exist without random intrusions of people purposely triggering her hatred and compassion alike. Regardless, Aniston ensures the work is a must-see for her performance alone, one enhanced by Barraza’s heart, Huffman’s subtle humor, and Worthington’s transparency. She gives Claire an edge that cannot be pitied and a sorrow that cannot be ignored.
 Still of Jennifer Aniston in Cake (2014)
 Still of Jennifer Aniston and Sam Worthington in Cake (2014)
 Still of Jennifer Aniston and Anna Kendrick in Cake (2014)