TORONTO – Chances are that anyone who saw Daniel Barnz's “Phoebe in Wonderland” at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival has been wondering if we'd ever see “that” talented director again. In the years since, he tried to jump on the YA wagon with the misfire “Beastly” and got terribly lost in the studio world with 2012's “Won't Back Down.” He may still be a little rough around the edges, but the Barnz who showed so much promise with “Phoebe” is back with the new drama “Cake,” which premiered Monday at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. And as much as “Cake” is something of a comeback for Barnz, it's really on most people's radar for being a rare dramatic turn for Jennifer Aniston, and she doesn't disappoint.
We're first introduced to Aniston's character, Claire, at a chronic pain support group trying to cope with the suicide of one of their members, Nina (Anna Kendrick). The only person who isn't having any of it, though, is Claire. The audience quickly realizes that as funny as her sarcastic retort is about the unintentionally comic details of Nina's passing, she's personally suffering from something more than physical pain. She's just not in a good place. Moreover, her comments are so harsh she is actually asked to not return to the group.
Eventually we discover that Claire's physical injuries were suffered during a car accident. She severely screwed up her back and was left with visible scars on her face. Her mental trauma comes not just from her constant discomfort, but from the loss of her child during the accident. This has set her on a course to destroy her marriage with a seemingly good man (Chris Messina) and become addicted to every pain pill you can imagine. The only solace in her life, whether she even realizes it, is her housekeeper Silvana (a fantastic Adriana Barraza), who is probably her only real friend (and increasingly losing patience with her).
Nina's suicide, however, is haunting Claire. So much so that she begins to appear as an apparition, taunting her at times. This prompts Claire to make more inquiries about Nina's death. She eventually finds her home and befriends her husband Roy (Sam Worthington). Frankly, outside of Aniston's performance, this isn't the strongest part of the film. The narrative is slightly meandering and there are seemingly unnecessary scenes along the way. Then, surprisingly, something strange happens in the third act.
Mostly thanks to Barnz's direction and Aniston's performance it all starts to gel; Claire's arc begins to coalesce. Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin's thoughts on how we cope with pain and how we can transcend are finally clear. The audience connects to the emotional aspect of Claire's journey. It's actually quite moving and Barnz finds the right emotional touch points without going overboard (one of the best features of “Phoebe in Wonderland”). It's a bumpy ride to get there, but they pull it together in the end. And a lot of that credit has to go to Aniston.
Frankly, the last time Aniston seemed like she was playing anyone so far from her public persona was “The Good Girl,” well over a decade ago. Yes, the makeup's off, but so are almost all of Aniston's familiar mannerisms we've seen in one studio comedy after another. Aniston makes you believe in Claire's pain. She makes you believe this character is at her lowest point and only she can pull herself out of it. There is no Oscar scene. There is no massive crying fit. It's a complete performance from beginning to end and she deserves the appropriate accolades for it.
There's no guarantee “Cake” will be an art house hit or earn Aniston the respect she deserves as an actress. Audiences can only hope they don't have to wait another 10 years before she challenges herself to this extent again.
And as for Mr. Barnz? Welcome back.