Like most people I know, I hated Cake before ever seeing it. Based on previews alone, it seemed like an easy film to size up. The plotline looked both predictable and contrived, and the story — about a pain-pill-addicted woman hitting rock bottom — seemed like the type of tearjerker that shamelessly aimed for the jugular. And let’s not forget its star, Jennifer Aniston, whose appearance in Horrible Bosses 2 I’m still trying to shake.
That’s not to say Cake isn’t all of those things. The script, which introduces Aniston’s Claire to us in the middle of her downward spiral, makes some attempt at a mysterious slow reveal. But the story beneath the surface is so thinly veiled that when it all comes crashing down, the exposition feels unnecessary at best. Then there’s the film’s supernatural element, which finds Claire facing off with the ghost of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a fellow recovery support group member who commits suicide. At times, these interactions between Claire and Nina reach moments of poignancy. Mostly, though, they just seem silly.
And yet, somehow, Cake still sort of succeeds. Aniston, whose omnipresent celeb stature should make a role like this all but impossible to land, manages an impressive feat here: She stretches beyond her comfort zone and makes Claire so deplorable, vexing, and thoroughly damaged you can’t help but be mesmerized by her. And therein lies Cake’s sweet spot. Aniston turns in such a believably complex performance that all the film’s flaws — and there are many — kind of fade into the background, leaving us with a character study that’s unapologetically human and at times so painful to watch you can’t help but leave feeling affected by it. Of course, the farther you get from the darkness of the theater, the more glaring those larger filmic flaws become. But kudos to Aniston for rising above her source material. Try as I might to say otherwise, hers really is one of the stronger performances of the year.