Cake is a study of grief that drowns in a cold bath of grim self-pity. It introduces the prickly, disheveled Claire (Jennifer Aniston) at a workshop for chronic-pain sufferers, where she’s pressed to talk about the recent suicide of a group member named Nina (Anna Kendrick). Their leader (Felicity Huffmann) seems infuriatingly certain that her processing formula will allow the group to efficiently dispense with feelings as complex as the shock of losing a colleague to a temptation many are wrestling with themselves. In the face of that programmatic, bullying “empathy,” Claire’s sardonic defiance reads like heroic truth-telling. But as the film drags on, the character’s brusque insistence on speaking her mind is almost always applied to undeserving targets, like her still loving and supportive ex-husband (Chris Messina) or her saintly housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whose empathy sets Claire’s chilly self-absorption into even sharper relief. In time, Claire’s behavior begins to read as the bitterness of an entitled person who doesn’t much care how her actions affect anyone else.
The script treats the event that left Claire in this state as a mystery, coyly delaying the reveal until long after it’s become obvious, but there’s never any doubt about the brittle state she’s in. Intense, relentless physical and emotional agony and massive doses of pain meds have left her wan, tight-lipped, stony-faced, and always slightly unkempt. Aniston sits and moves stiffly, as if trapped inside an invisible suit of armor; at night, she moves restlessly in bed, conveying how the pills that Claire takes by the fistful are unable to keep the pain at bay. But that finely detailed portrayal is marooned in a film that doesn’t know what to do with it, as none of Claire’s relationships with other people feel real. That may be intended as a symptom of her alienation, but it only succeeds in alienating us as we follow her through a series of encounters with people who barely register as individuals with thoughts and feelings of their own.
Claire’s fascination with Nina’s suicide leads her to Nina’s widower, Roy (Sam Worthington). The credit for Claire’s tart but tender rapport with Roy belongs mainly to the actors, since Roy functions purely as a cushion for Claire’s grief, making their relationship as hollow as a plaster saint Claire uses to smuggle drugs home from Mexico. That random weightlessness infuses the film as a whole, as when a hitchhiker Claire picks up and brings home for a few days leaves barely a trace of emotional residue. Even climactic moments like Claire’s decision to quit her meds and re-enter the world are oddly lacking in emotional resonance.
The film interestingly insists on the audience judging its main character, which places us in a potentially uneasy position. Though she shows flashes of kindness and humor, Claire herself acknowledges that people think she’s “a bitch,” and the less affluent Mexicans and Mexican Americans who serve as the film’s magical Negroes keep calling her out. Silvana’s daughter curses her for being an exploitative employer who doesn’t appreciate the lengths Silvana goes to for her, and a Tijuana pharmacist brushes off her fears of being caught smuggling meds by saying, “You’re a rich white woman. When have you ever gotten caught?” The most thorough rebuke comes from Silvana, who yells at her (in Spanish, which Claire doesn’t speak—and, tellingly, never asks Silvana to translate) for being self-indulgent and thoughtless, underpaying her, and freezing out her own husband, a good man who clearly still cares about her. Like Silvana, audiences may sympathize with Claire even as they’re infuriated or baffled by her behavior, and that tension may force one to think about just where the lines are drawn between the inevitable messiness of grieving and blindered selfishness.