Jennifer Aniston rests after yet another rehab session in Cake.

You may have heard the whispers about a movie called Cake that stars Jennifer Aniston and played at the Toronto Film Festival. The lead actress scored a Golden Globe nomination and campaigned hard for an Oscar nod, and the movie industry’s pointy heads were already writing think pieces about how she was going to get her first nomination despite headlining a movie so bad that its production company had to release the film itself because no distributors wanted it. Then the Oscars ignored her, and all that went away. However, the film is still in theaters, and the word here is: Aniston is very good, and the movie is not, though I’ve seen distributors put out much worse.

Aniston plays Claire Simmons, a facially scarred woman who spends her days being shuttled by her full-time caregiver Silvana (Adriana Barraza) between her tony L.A. home and various doctors. A former high-powered lawyer, Claire is now a massive pain in the ass, scamming pain pills from the medical professionals, heaping verbal abuse on people around her, and getting kicked out of her chronic pain-sufferers’ support group by making insensitive remarks about a fellow patient named Nina (Anna Kendrick) who recently killed herself. It’s hard to tell what’s more alarming, the rate at which Claire pops painkillers or the way she becomes morbidly obsessed with Nina, visiting the freeway overpass where she jumped and turning up at her house and lying her way in past Nina’s Australian husband (Sam Worthington).

How did Claire get this way? The movie treats that as a point of suspense, not revealing the cause until late in the proceedings. I’m not sure why; all but the dullest-witted moviegoers will guess at it from the early scene when Claire gives a crate of children’s toys to the pool boy (Manuel García-Rulfo) and there’s no kid living with her. Silvana’s patience with her boss is downright saintly, and her one scene near the end when she finally snaps feels blatantly calculated for effect. I wish, too, that the movie had done more to call out Claire’s rich white person privilege besides that and a stray wisecrack from a Mexican pharmacist (Julio Óscar Mechoso).

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The movie really nosedives during the scenes when Nina appears to Claire in the midst of her painkiller-induced hallucinations. Everything is wildly misconceived: Director Daniel Barnz (Beastly) has no flair for the phantasmagoric, Nina’s communiques from the afterlife are trite, and Kendrick is either too perky or not perky enough as the apparition. This whole subplot should have been cut.

The only reason to see this movie is Aniston, tamping down her natural likability, throwing acid into her typically finely tuned comic deliveries, and resisting the urge to play for sympathy. Her restraint lends power for the few times when Claire completely loses it, as in an episode when she awakes in a hospital after an overdose. I’m not too upset that this performance was left out of the Oscar nods, but Cake usefully reminds us that Jennifer Aniston can actually act. I wish she’d do it more often and in better movies than this one.


Starring Jennifer Aniston and Adriana Barraza. Directed by Daniel Barnz. Written by Patrick Tobin. Rated R.[/box_info]