Jennifer Aniston received a Golden Globe nomination and a strenuous Oscar campaign for her work in Daniel Barnz’s Cake, a movie that isn’t noteworthy in any other way, except maybe as the ultimate example of “Unwatchable Awards Movie.”
Indie filmmakers seem to be endlessly fascinated with grief, as if it’s the most compelling emotion, or at least the most artistic one. It’s not. There’s nothing I’d less rather do than watch someone act sullen and numb for two hours. At some level, even the filmmakers themselves must know grief is dull, or else why would every movie about a grief-stricken protagonist include so many fantasy and dream sequences? Truth is, there’s a limit to how long any rational human being wants to watch another pout and take pills. Which is why there’s usually at least one scene of them with their eyes closed against the sun, as the waves wash cathartically over them. Or of them thrashing and eventually being pulled under an imaginary sea by a heavy-handed metaphor before they snap bolt upright in bed to remind us that the only interesting things happening to them aren’t real. The only interesting movie about grief is Hesher, and Cake could not be further from Hesher.
Let me set the scene for you: Jennifer Aniston, outfitted with some fake scars on her face, is not only grieving the loss of her son, she’s also dealing with chronic pain from presumably the same accident that killed him. So not only is she sullen and terse and mean for the entire movie, she’s also stiff like a mummy and yelps or sighs in pain whenever she has to move too much. What fun! Please make 10 sequels!
The other characters in the movie include Aniston’s endlessly devoted Latino maid, the ghost of Anna Kendrick – a woman from Jennifer Aniston’s chronic pain support who has recently committed suicide – and Kendrick’s widowed husband, Sam Worthington. William H. Macy shows up for two minutes for Aniston to beat up in her driveway, and I’d love to hear what his agent promised him to get him to be in this movie.
The film opens with the support group mourning Kendrick, building up to Aniston’s character “asking” (she’s rather transparently telling, us) about how Kendrick jumped off the 110 overpass and landed in a dump truck bound for Mexico and wasn’t found until it stopped in Acapulco, at which point her body had to be shipped back in a plastic crate and got held up in customs. Aniston’s character structures this exposition in the form of a “isn’t it true that…” question to the group leader, and when she gets to the end of the story, without any type of joke or comment, the rest of the support group just stares back at her as if to say, “Yes, that is true. Anything you’d like to add?”
And that was the most interesting thing that happened the entire movie. It also set up the running theme of having nothing to add.
Anna Kendrick’s character then reappears to Aniston’s throughout the movie, inexplicably tormenting her in uninteresting ways, like telling her she’s a bitch. By the end of the film, thanks to her devoted Latino maid, her dead friend’s kindly Australian husband, and numerous Percocet-aided soaks in her cathartic pool, Aniston’s character regains the ability to sit upright while riding in a car. What a triumph. Also, there was a cake.
Cake is exactly the kind of movie I envisioned when I begged the Academy not to nominate Eddie Redmayne for his work in Theory of Everything, lest they re-endorse the strangely pervasive idea that the greater the physical hardship of a character, the greater the talent of the actor. It garnered more outrage than anything I’ve written since I panned Pacific Rim, and I’ll admit now that I owe those outraged morons an apology. Cake is so much worse. It has even less to say and is an even more transparent attempt to bolster the “seriousness” of its star. It seems to exist solely to prove that Jennifer Aniston can go a whole movie without being likable or funny. Why is this a laudatory skill? Is it really harder to pretend to be in constant, excruciating pain than it is to portray a believable character in a light comedy (something Aniston, unlike many actresses at her level, is actually decent at)? And if it is harder, should we pretend to enjoy watching it? It’d probably be really hard for an actor to sit completely still for six hours too.