Claire Bennett is a bitter pill to take. We first meet her seated in a private nest of cynicism and doubt amid a support group for people with chronic pain. The group’s simpering leader is fumbling unsuccessfully to explain how a former group member who recently committed suicide is some kind of hero. Claire is having none of this. Asked to express her feelings, she launches into a tragically humorous verbal reenactment of the girl’s suicide, a fatal jump from an L.A. overpass that ended in an irony so bitter and so funny that you will feel ashamed for laughing. Claire sees the irony in the situation, others do not. She is asked to leave the group.
Claire is not an easy person to warm up to. She’s angry, bitter and disagreeable to the point that even her physical therapist quietly gives up on her. We can see how difficult she is, but because of what she’s been through we don’t completely dismiss her as a hollow shell of a person. Some time ago Claire was in a terrible car accident that left her body covered in scars, and also left her with physical pain so severe that she is slipping privately into an addiction to pain medication. She has no simplistic or even organic tools to deal with the tragedy that she has suffered.
Something else was lost in that accident that the movie is slow to reveal, and one of the pleasures of Cake is that the particulars of Claire’s situation are doled out slowly so we have time to get to know her before we get a complete picture of her circumstances. Claire is obviously a damaged person who we have trouble taking a shine to but more and more, little by little throughout the movie pieces of her puzzle come to light, so that by the end what we’ve seen of Claire’s disagreeable attitude make complete sense.
Although her personality is not easy to warm up to, we are helped along by the fact that Claire is played by Jennifer Anniston whose previous work has revealed a sweet personality that’s hiding a lot of heartache. This is a brilliant dramatic turn for Anniston who, after two decades of playing light comedy, dares to delve into drama and play someone unlikeable. She is unglamorous, devoid of make-up and flattering clothes, and even leaves her trademark Rachel Hair an unkempt mess.
Despite a fighting spirit hell-bent on not dealing with the situation, Claire becomes otherwise obsessed with the suicide of the girl from the group, named Nina, whom she imagines in ghost form (and played by Anna Kendrick) as she attempts to make sense of why someone would choose this final option. Claire herself has several trips to the edge of her own suicide, but something is holding her back, some passionate need to get a handle on what has happened to her. She takes a dangerous road to recovery in making friends with the girl’s husband Roy (Sam Worthington) and her young son, a union that doesn’t quite go where we expect.
To everyone else, Claire seems a lost cause, but one person cares deeply about her, her hired nurse Silvana (Adriana Barazza), a Mexican immigrant whose passionate faith won’t let her give up on this woman despite her employer’s indifference and verbal abuse, Silvana refuses to leave her side. This relationship too is not what we expect. Silvana has a life of her own outside of taking care of her employer, and Barazza (who was nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for Babel) gives a wonderful supporting performance as a Godly woman dealing with a difficult assignment.
The screenplay here, written by Patrick Tobin is free of gimmicks and emotional trickery. He’s written a story that has a nice flow. It doesn’t feel gummed up, but is thin enough to let the characters breathe. You feel the flow of real life in these characters, and even if the dialogue gets a little too poetic, you don’t mind because you become invested in Claire’s journey. If the movie has a weakness, it might be that it wears out its welcome at the end. The last half hour probably could have been shorter and a little bit cleaner, and there’s a minor subplot involving a teenage hitchhiker that feels a little tacked on.
Those problems aside, I’m happy for what the film is. Cake could have gone wrong in so many different ways. It could have turned into a pandering mess of heroic clichés and good feeling. But the script is smarter than that. This is the story of a very specific person with a very specific life who wallows in her misery until she finds a reason to keep going. Through Jennifer Anniston’s wonderful performance we see that Claire is not a wounded angel, she’s just a woman trying to find a measure of clarity. By the end, she’s still a bitter pill to take, but we care about her because of how far she’s come.