Dir: Daniel Barnz. Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina. 15 cert, 91 min
If there’s anything that unites this year’s English-speaking Best Actress Oscar nominees, it’s their ability to elevate – or, frankly, shore up – the patchy material they’ve been handed by a system more concerned with minting new superheroes: it may be that Julianne Moore takes the top prize on Sunday for giving the best performance in the least ordinary film. Given all this, we might consider Jennifer Aniston – a Golden Globe nominee – unlucky not to have made the shortlist for her turn as a depressive L.A. divorcee in Daniel Barnz’s Cake. She’s the one element keeping this unexceptional dramedy halfway watchable.
Screenwriter Patrick Tobin here revives a narrative trope you’d thought had been long benched, presenting us with Woman as Problem, and then trying to puzzle her out. The question is why Aniston’s well-to-do Claire Bennett should be so bitter in rehab and scarred about the face; why she’s inclined to start drinking at eleven in the morning, and beckon the handyman in shortly thereafter for no-fun sex. Aniston plays along, tamping down her usual energy, giving nothing away: we’re informed, swiftly and in no uncertain terms, that this is going to be even harder work than Horrible Bosses 2.
Yet as a study in depression, Cake is undermined by its refusal to address Claire’s condition in isolation. Supporting actors are ushered on as easy steps in a Hollywood-schematic recovery program. Chris Messina, as the ex, has one scene to demonstrate somebody once loved this woman; suicide victim Anna Kendrick smirks at Claire in Technicolor fantasias, at one point bluntly summarising what the film’s really asking (“Why are you such a c**t?”). An obvious cure materialises when heartbroken Sam Worthington opens a door as a species apparently irresistible to New Agey Californians: somebody with whom one might go hang windchimes.
Those chimes, sporadically returned to, prove crucial to the safe, sunny space Barnz fosters so that everybody here can talk out their troubles: it’s a cardigan-clad drumcircle of a film, possessed of an earnestness – underlined by Claire’s midfilm rediscovery of Billy Joel – which raises it above the flagrant insincerity of a Gone Girl, for one. Yet its success depends on one’s ability to connect with a depressive who has a maid to prise her from bed, and a collection of Rothko knock-offs behind which to secrete her Xanax. Viewed as the privileged L.A. story this is, it’s amazing the Academy didn’t vote Team Aniston by a landslide.
Cake is now playing in cinemas nationwide.