The ingredients are all there but the batter never mixes correctly in Cake. A stellar performance from its star cannot hide the deficiencies in the rest of the film, nor can it entirely keep you interested, as there’s no one and nothing for her to work with or against. Jennifer Aniston deserved all the accolades she got, and probably deserved that withheld Oscar nomination more than Felicity Jones’ long-suffering wife in The Theory of Everything, but there’s nothing else going on throughout Cake to invest in.
Cake treats the central event of what caused Aniston’s Claire to wind up as a chronic pain sufferer with the beginnings of one hell of a prescription pill addiction as a mystery, but what they think are breadcrumbs are actually gigantic signposts. By the time Cake gets around to unraveling the mysteries at its core, we’ve already not only figured them out, but met them with an indifferent shrug. This is what happens when all of the other characters are stick figures and blank slates for the main characters to act and project upon.
Why is it that primarily comedic actors only get props for doing drama? Aniston’s quirky, comedic work on Friends was career making, and she’s done plenty of respectable comedic film performances, but it’s typically films like The Good Girl and Friends With Money that crop as proof of her acting talents. None of this is to say that Aniston’s performance in Cake is not worthy of the reams of praise heaped upon it, but it needs to not be treated as some kind of heretofore unknown talent.
Aniston goes deep into the physicality of the character, and her choices to telegraph and demonstrate living with chronic pain feel correct in both the micro and macro levels. Even better is how someone dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” forsakes that likable image so completely and relishes playing someone so incredibly selfish, mired in grief, and frequently terrible in her self-destructive, sardonic actions. There’s no warm fuzzy feeling in her Claire. She’s a woman at a crossroads and sinking in emotional turmoil, and Aniston does her best to make the emotional catharsis of the ending work.
She can’t quite pull off the trick, but that’s got little to do with the strength of her work and more to do with the weakness of the script and the faux-deep directing choices. Cake doesn’t want to examine the outside world that’s pressing in on Claire’s privileged existence, and it reduces several Mexican characters to variations of the Magical Negro and its two male characters to gender-flipped supportive players with nothing much to say or do but act as a springboard. It’s Aniston’s show, and she makes a meal of it, but it’s a goddamn shame that nothing else rises to her level because then we really could have had something here.