‘Cake’ Serves Emotionally Honest, Career-Growing Dramatic Role for Jennifer Aniston

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CHICAGO – It’s been a while since I walked out of a screening so affected and feeling that I just experienced a truly honest, important film.

Sure, other ones have since, but back in 2007, “Once” especially made me feel that way long before the Oscars. I never would have expected it here and nor will you from this film you’ve probably heard little or nothing about, but a little engine that could called “Cake” has done that to me again. And you’d never guess who primarily made it possible: Jennifer Aniston in a visually unflattering, dramatic role.

While “Cake” is receiving mixed reception, Aniston is being recognized for the career-growing range it’s proving for her beyond the “Friends” comedic stigma she’s trying to grow beyond. Though she tried with the dramatic romance “Love Happens” in 2009, it bombed. “Horrible Bosses” in 2011 and “Horrible Bosses 2” in 2014 has memorably put Aniston in the comedic supporting-role seat as a sex-crazed dentist and no one’s upset that she’s played Dr. Julia Harris, D.D.S.

Jennifer Aniston in Cake
Jennifer Aniston stars as Claire Bennett in “Cake”.
Image credit: Cinelou Releasing

But much like what the visually unflattering, career-growing role of “Monster” did to Charlize Theron, you can tell “Cake” is an actually important role to Aniston personally. The film is primarily a drama, which is certainly against type for Aniston, but it’s also a dark, angry comedy that is relatable to anyone who’s ever been bitter about anything.

More than just for her fans, playing Claire Bennett is a role Aniston is using to try to change Hollywood’s comedic-only perception of her. While “Cake” is an under-the-radar, low-budget film with an accomplished cast, Aniston’s work is already getting recognized. In 2015, Aniston has been nominated for Best Actress in “Cake” by the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards.

She’s won for the role at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Though she was eligible with a qualifying Dec. 2014 limited run of “Cake,” Aniston was not nominated for an Oscar, which is being viewed as a snub. But more than just a vehicle for awards, “Cake” features an overdue, career-growing, award-worthy, emotionally honest role for Aniston anchored by a patient script written by real humans about real humans.

Jennifer Aniston and Adriana Barraza in Cake
Jennifer Aniston (left) and Adriana Barraza in “Cake”.
Image credit: Cinelou Releasing

Feeling like it was written expressly for her, the role is the best of her career thus far. The film, though, is a hidden gem that could get overlooked by a quiet January release. Currently at one day in release in only 482 theatres and $266,000 in box-office earnings, “Cake” deserves a wider audience than it’s going to get. (By comparison, a large film will release to around 3,500 theatres.)

“Cake,” which screened on the same day as the more known film “The Boy Next Door,” stars Jennifer Aniston as a character named Claire. “The Boy Next Door,” by the way, stars Jennifer Lopez as a character also named Claire. Though both films opened yesterday, they are nothing alike and there is no quality comparison. “Cake” blows away JLo’s newest mega flop.

“Cake” comes from We’re Not Brothers Productions, which is made up of director Daniel Barnz and producer Ben Barnz. Yes, you guessed it from the funny production name: Daniel and Ben are married and are not brothers.

Jennifer Aniston and Chris Messina in Cake
Jennifer Aniston (left) and Chris Messina in “Cake”.
Image credit: Cinelou Releasing

As Claire, Aniston is make-up free with a normal, non-Hollywood body. Claire is not inspired enough to wear a bra, she’s seen with severe body scars and even has a chubby tummy. She’s depressed, in chronic pain, wants quiet and low light and sometimes turns to meaningless sex. Claire is visited at night a couple times by a random possum to illustrate her loneliness, but also to signify that she’s listening to what the world is trying to tell her.

Even more, she’s an addicted pill popper who travels as far as Tijuana, Mexico to illegally snatch a refill of her Percocet and Oxycotton. She likes to hide her prescription drugs behind wall art and pop the pills – against doctor’s orders – with alcohol. Her chronic pain and addicted drug use reminds me of Hugh Laurie’s obsession with Vicodin in TV’s “House M.D.”.

The film’s script is deliberately patient. All throughout you’re asking yourself healthy questions. Why is Claire in pain? Why is she suicidal? Even though it seems like she’s doing absolutely nothing with her life and she’s never gone a day to work in the film, how is she so rich? All of your questions are designed to stew as a slow burn until director Daniel Barnz and writer Patrick Tobin (who only wrote one unknown film before “Cake”) are ready to answer.

Anna Kendrick and Jennifer Aniston in Cake
Anna Kendrick (left) and Jennifer Aniston in “Cake”.
Image credit: Cinelou Releasing

All the while, the film feels unpretentious and unmanipulative. Most important, it feels honest, genuine and real. Even if you’ve never experienced chronic pain, suicidal tendencies and extreme depression, you can relate to Claire because you probably know someone who has. It doesn’t feel like Claire is trying to prove or sell anything to you. Rather, she’s going about her journey the only way she can and leaves us with a message to think about.

Claire is joined by a well-cast cast of “A”-listers who you typically wouldn’t think would all act in a dark drama let alone any film together. Anna Kendrick, who is prominently seen recently in Disney’s “Into the Woods,” plays an important hallucinatory character for Claire. Kendrick as Nina Collins helps Claire question her existence and whether or not she really wants it to continue.

While I often knock a film’s leading lady and leading man as having artificial chemistry that I typically end up never genuinely feeling, Aniston and Sam Worthington not only make sense but I could actually buy into their plot progression. Worthington as Roy Collins, who was previously married to Nina, is known for being Jake Sully in the big-budget film “Avatar” (along with “Avatar 2” in 2017, “Avatar 3” in 2018 and “Avatar 4” in 2019) as well as his action role as Perseus in “Clash of the Titans” and “Wrath of the Titans”.

Born in England, Worthington is out of typical character in “Cake” (just like Aniston) and also wants to show American Hollywood that he too can dramatically act. While “Cake” produces the actor’s cliché of a “passion project” and wanting to do it with artistic license for little or no money, the result is a believably tough story about real people.

Jennifer Aniston and Sam Worthington in Cake
Jennifer Aniston (left) and Sam Worthington in “Cake”.
Image credit: Cinelou Releasing

“Cake” is also propelled by Chris Messina in the role of Jason Bennett – Claire Bennett’s ex-husband – along with Mamie Gummer. William H. Macy is used in a single, powerful cameo. The aggressive scene is literally the definition of what a true dramatic cameo should be.

The film also couldn’t be what it is without such an honest, important supporting role by the Mexican actress Adriana Barraza as Silvana. Through all of Claire’s denoms and fleeting people, Silvana as the housekeeper is her one true friend and guiding light. Felicity Huffman also turns in a memorable, straight-laced role as the head of Claire’s depressed support group that she mocks.

While the film is a therapeutic journey through grief into healing for people who comfort each other during similar loss, it did make me worry about how it’d end. I was fine sitting patiently for the secrets to Claire’s puzzle to slowly unfold, but after focusing on doom and gloom for the majority of the film, its runway begins running short while getting to its 102-minute mark.

Really there is no other way to end the film than how Tobin wrote it, which is illustrated in a clever way. While I can’t say I’d have ended it any differently, the transformation was the only part that felt “made for Hollywood” rather than the natural progression during the rest of the film.

“Cake” stars Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Mamie Gummer, Adriana Barraza, Felicity Huffman, Lucy Punch and Britt Robertson from director Daniel Barnz and writer Patrick Tobin. The film, which opened on Jan. 23, 2015, has a running time of 102 minutes. It is rated “R” for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality.

HollywoodChicago.com publisher Adam Fendelman


© 2015 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com LLC

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