Last fall, when raves came out of the Toronto International Film Festival about Jennifer Aniston’s “Oscar-worthy,” vanity-free performance in Cake (in limited release now), I was doubtful. Just because an actress goes without makeup doesn’t mean she deserves an award for it. Then I went to a screening, where Aniston also did Q&A, and walked out thinking this is her best performance to date.
Aniston plays Claire, a woman suffering from chronic pain after a traumatic incident, though we don’t know at first exactly what happened. We see that Claire, who has long scars on her face and body, has stopped taking care of herself and become a bitter woman. The only person who seems to care about her is her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barazza), but as Claire snaps, “I pay her to care about me.”
We see Claire in group therapy, pop pills, be cranky with people. It doesn’t sound like much happens, but Claire’s journey toward healing is never boring and even funny, with Aniston holding interest in every frame.
Aniston said in the Q&A that night—and elsewhere—that this role is the most challenging one she’s ever had and it’s clear she committed fully to it. She didn’t just go without makeup and shampoo, stopped working out, applied some scars, and left it at that. The stiff way Aniston moves, the tiny winces that flutter across her face when she’s in a car on a bumpy ride (Claire has to recline all the way back while Silvana drives her), and the biting way she talks all make viewers feel Claire’s acute pain without Aniston having to overdo it.
Viewers would experience a different kind of pain while watching Cake if Claire were a self-pitying drag, but she’s prickly and sardonic, providing much needed levity. Some of Claire’s remarks in group therapy are grossly inappropriate but they got laughs from the audience.
Writer Patrick Tobin makes a risky choice in not allowing viewers to know right away the cause of Claire’s grief—does it justify her brash behavior toward others?—and even when the revelation happens late in the movie, it’s done subtly with details withheld. But this structure works. It shows Tobin’s and director Daniel Barnz’s trust in the audience to fill in what’s not being spoon-fed to us.
After last week’s Oscar nominations were announced, much was said about Aniston being snubbed for best actress, that Marion Cotillard, nominated for Two Days, One Night, got the slot Aniston should’ve received. I do think Aniston deserves to be in the top five, but not that Cotillard shouldn’t be there. If one actress had to be bumped to make room for Aniston, I would’ve chosen Reese Witherspoon in Wild.
Speaking of people who should’ve been nominated, it makes no sense to me that Barazza hasn’t received any awards attention. Silvana’s heart balances out Claire’s crabbiness. Having Barazza as a scene partner during much of the movie could only have helped Aniston’s performance.
Several name actors also show up in supporting and cameo roles, including Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy and his real-life wife Felicity Huffman, Sam Worthington, Chris Messina—each is spot on. But this is Aniston’s movie, and those who still think she plays herself or Rachel Green in every movie will see she’s really not Friendly here.
Nerd verdict: Aniston sinks teeth into Cake