Film review: Cake

Cake is decent enough, though neither as funny nor as powerful as it thinks it is. Yet it’s a failure of today’s movies that the only pathway to “serious” recognition for an actress such as Jennifer Aniston is by suffocating her buoyant charm.

Jennifer Aniston, left, and Adriana Barraza in Cake. AP Photo
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Director: Daniel Barnz

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, Adriana Barraza

Three stars

Ah, to de-glam. It’s one of the surest shortcuts to newfound artistic appreciation – a bed-­raggled deviation into dowdy drama by a beautiful star. Acclaim by way of sweatpants.

Cake, in which Jennifer Aniston plays a bitterly grieving, caustically acerbic and chronically pained Los Angeles woman, belongs to a contrived kind of low-budget movie – drab and depressed, but predictably poignant – just as artificial as any blockbuster convention.

As Claire Simmons, Aniston has facial scars, stringy hair and a slightly frumpier frame. But this is also a very recognisable Aniston, whose deserved appeal has always depended on marrying her pert, all-American girl-next-door with a glib sarcasm. In Cake, she has turned up the cynicism as far as it will go.

She lives largely holed up in a handsomely designed suburban LA home, popping pills, struggling with sleeplessness and haunted by appearances of a woman (Anna Kendrick) from her self-help group who committed suicide.

Claire’s Mexican housekeeper Silvana (an exceptional Adriana Barraza) cooks food she won’t eat and shuttles her around town, usually in the pursuit of more pills. Claire lies reclined in the passenger seat, laid flat by back pain from the vaguely referenced car crash that left her scarred. Whatever the details, the accident’s true trauma is eventually clear enough.

She crankily putters around, lashing out, lonely from the absence of her husband (Chris Messina) who, like everyone else, got tired of her hostile moping. All but Silvana have deserted her.

The patience of the audience is tested, too. Cake, directed by Daniel Barnz from a screenplay by Patrick Tobin, is in many ways less about Claire's threshold for pain than our tolerance for hers.

The film very slowly builds to the expected catharsis. Barnz hides all images of Claire's heartbreak until one late, crushing jolt of pathos, a decision that could be said to be manipulative. But the blankness to Claire's history also reflects the point of the film: we don't see the wounds people are carrying around. Would we have stuck it out with Claire? But by never fleshing out Claire's life, Cake never expands beyond a wallowing in pain, which starts to feel more and more like a concept rather than a deep emotion.

Cake is decent enough, though neither as funny nor as powerful as it thinks it is. Yet it's a failure of today's movies that the only pathway to "serious" recognition for an actress such as Aniston is by suffocating her buoyant charm. She's a sly comedic performer with a keen sense of timing and a likeability that a decade of perpetual tabloid obsession has failed to smother.

So where are the smart, witty romantic comedies she deserves?

• Cake opens in cinemas on Thursday, April 16