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With her world-weary cynicism, barbed sarcasm, constant physical pain and pill addiction, Claire Bennett doesn’t really look like any role Jennifer Aniston has taken on in her 20+ year career but that doesn’t mean that the character isn’t a little familiar. Change Claire’s gender, give her a lab coat, an even bigger chip on her shoulder and voila: paging Dr. Gregory House to the front lobby.

Reductive? Perhaps, although it’s certainly not meant as any kind of slight on Aniston’s abilities. The former Friends star underplays her part nobly, allowing the inherent anger, depression and hopelessness of her situation to bob to the surface, breaking the chilly serenity like so many jagged ice floes. The problem, as it turns out, is that Daniel Barnz’s Cake (2014) really doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. As Claire frowns, mopes, drops dry repartee and lashes out at the world around her, it becomes increasingly difficult not to think of the surrounding film as a kind of prison, a distressingly familiar, middle-of-the-road salvation story that hits every expected beat, yet constantly feels lesser than the sum of its parts.

We first meet Claire in a chronic-pain support group, where she displays her uncanny ability to be simultaneously charming, obnoxious, combative and exceptionally glum. One of Claire’s fellow group members, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has just committed suicide by jumping from a busy freeway overpass and, in lieu of focusing on her own issues, Claire has decided to figure out just what makes another person decide to kill themselves. Her interest, of course, is purely academic: Claire couldn’t really give two shits about anyone but focusing on her amateur “investigation” is as good as any a way to try to stay occupied.

What, exactly, is Claire’s problem? The film, itself, is pretty cagey about the whole thing, drawing out the revelation as if it were some sort of twist but we get the main elements early enough to draw our own conclusions: with all of her scars and healed injuries, chronic pain, constant mourning and divorce from her husband, Jason (Chris Messina), we know that Claire has been in an accident of some sort, an accident that’s claimed the life of her child and left her bitter, broken and impossibly angry at the world. We get a nice reminder of this when we listen in on a message that Jason leaves for Claire in which he expresses his desire to come claim the rest of his things when she’s not around: nothing in her life is easy, pleasant or positive.

As is wont in this kinds of films, however, a change is a brewin’: once Claire and her put-upon housekeeper/caretaker Silvana (Adriana Barraza) start to dig deep into the details of Nina’s life (and death), Claire begins to regain a tiny bit of her joie de vivre. Things pick up even further when she happens to meet Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington) and young son, Casey (Evan O’Toole). Like Claire, Roy has plenty of anger issues, most of which he reserves for his dead wife: Nina “abandoned” Roy and Casey and her husband hates her abjectly for it.

Birds of a feather do, indeed, flock together and soon, Claire and Roy are striking up a strictly platonic relationship (they both want “intimacy” but have no interest in “sex”) as they each try to lean on the other for support. There’s an awful lot of anger resting below the surface of Claire’s wit and sarcasm, however, the kind of anger that makes it impossible for anyone to just live their lives. As Claire (and the audience) get ever closer to learning all of the details of Nina’s passing (did I mention that Nina also “appears” to Claire, alternating between berating her, cajoling her and trying to steer her away from Roy? Well, she does.) and the accident that destroyed Claire’s life, as Claire gets ever closer to her own oblivion and Silvana seems helpless to affect any change, we’ll all learn a very important lesson: sometimes, life is just a series of small victories and that’s the best we can ever hope for.

As mentioned earlier, Aniston’s portrayal of Claire is rock-solid (she was even nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe) but the rest of the film exists on much shakier ground. While the movie has a reliably sturdy, understated look that’s pretty much the definition of “indie drama” (cinematographer Rachel Morrison also shot Sound of My Voice (2011), Fruitvale Station (2013), Little Accidents (2014) and Dope (2015)), Patrick Tobin’s script ends up short-sheeting too many of the characters, giving the film a malnourished, under-developed feel.

We briefly meet Silvana’s daughter and out-of-work husband (the whole scene lasts maybe 2-3 minutes, tops) but that’s the extent of any character building with that character, unless one counts the even briefer scene where Claire and Silvana run into a couple of Silvana’s old “friends” in Tijuana. Despite being in a fair amount of the film, Worthington’s Roy never really amounts to anything more than a plot contrivance (he gives Claire more info on Nina, sort of like a gamer running around and talking to NPCs in a role-playing-game) and any romance between him and Claire seems pretty dead on arrival. Kendrick pops up constantly, as the “ghost” of Nina (I guess), but we never get much better sense of her character than “suicide victim.” There’s even an extremely odd, unexplained scene where Claire seems to have sex with some guy that climbs in through her window. Is he a friend? A prostitute? She seems to pay him with a box of toys so, if he’s a professional, I’m guessing that he’s not a particularly astute one.

And don’t even get me started on poor William H. Macy, who gets exactly one scene (essentially a cameo) as the guy who was, apparently, responsible for the death of Claire’s child. We never get any more explanation than that: he shows up at her door, begs forgiveness, gets yelled at, thrown out and then exits stage left, never to be seen (or heard from) again. Any opportunity to milk honest emotional resonance from the scene is rendered moot by the fact that it all happens so quickly and, seemingly, arbitrarily.

In the end, this lack of fleshing out becomes the film’s biggest Achilles’ heel. Even the title, Cake, is based on something that seems to be as disposable and insubstantial as possible: when Nina and Claire were discussing what they would do if they were pain-free, Nina responded that she would bake her kid a birthday cake, from scratch (Claire’s wish was to screw an entire soccer team, for what it’s worth). All well and good. This whole notion culminates in a thoroughly head-scratching bit, however, where Claire and Silvana pick up a young hitchhiker and pay her to make a cake from scratch. The girl bakes the cake, steals Claire’s purse and takes off. As with the aforementioned scenes, the whole incident is over so quickly and so under-developed that it really has no impact: cut the hitchhiker scenes (along with the explanation of the cake) and the film is no worse for the wear.

There’s also a decided lack of danger to the film, a feeling that the stakes are too low to really make any of us break a sweat. There’s never a sense of urgency to anything Claire does, never the notion that she’s ever in any real danger, even when her and Silvana get stopped at the border with their load of illegal scrips. Even the scene where Claire comes perilously close to following Nina into the great beyond is quickly set up and then hurried along to the next scene, almost as if the filmmakers were checking points off a list. I had a similar issue with another film about addiction issues, Why Stop Now? (2012): in both cases, it felt as if the filmmakers were taking a purely surface view of a much darker, deeper issue, pushing everything towards the kind of “it all works out” ending that, in reality, rarely happens.

Ultimately, the one thing that consistently works, as far as Cake is concerned, is Aniston’s performance. Despite the very obvious comparisons to Hugh Laurie’s cantankerous sawbones, Claire is a thoroughly multi-dimensional character and definitely marks a new high-water line in the actress’ career. While I didn’t think the performance was the best of its year (or even one of the best of the past several years), Aniston brings an understated, completely welcome sense of honesty and genuine pain that manages to shine over the rest of the film like a beacon.

In a better film (I’m thinking of something like the surprisingly great Life of Crime (2013)), Aniston has shown that she’s no slouch when it comes to the more dramatic side of the silver screen: despite being predominately cast in comedies, romances and rom-coms, I’d like to think that filmmakers will begin to realize that she’s a lot more versatile than she’s been given credit for. As it stands, though, Cake is a very serious, very well-meaning but, ultimately, rather shallow film. Everybody might love cake but this particular treat, unfortunately, falls a little flat.

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