Every once in a while, and admittedly not often enough, an actor or actress opens your eyes to talents you weren’t aware they inhabited. Over the past few decades, I think of performers like Charlize Theron in “Monster” or Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” as prime examples. Joining the elite list is the beautiful and incredible Jennifer Aniston in Daniel Barnz’s “Cake” co-starring Academy Award nominee Adriana Barraza. In a turn that stands as the single best performance by an actress this year, Aniston offers her heart and soul in the role of her career.
“Cake” tells the story of Claire Simmons, a woman addicted to pain killers who begins to hallucinate and see visions of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a woman who commits suicide from her chronic pain support group. Not so long after, she starts a friendship with Nina’s husband Roy (Sam Worthington), all while worrying the heart of her angelic housekeeper Silvana (Barraza).
Screenwriter Patrick Tobin, a relatively unknown scribe whose only credit is “No Easy Way” nearly twenty years ago, gives a strong focus on the creation of Claire. In partnership with Aniston’s talent, Claire comes off like the female equivalent to Melvin from “As Good as it Gets.” Snippy, darkly funny at times, but mostly emotionally driven by an aching pain. Tobin’s work on character creation is top-notch however, with his ability to move the story along fluidly, there’s still some work to be done. When we dig into the people that surround Claire, it’s only Silvana that doesn’t feel like a cliched representation of every sappy independent movie you’ve seen over the years. Director Daniel Barnz has a confident hand on the material and does his very best to elevate the script’s flaws. With huge misfires like “Won’t Back Down” and “Beastly” under his belt, he finally shows what some of his aesthetic beats can create with the right material. The movie has many interesting questions, some of which feel satisfying and comfortable to ask, other things however feel so small scale that the film itself can’t keep up with it.
The film lives and breathes, succeeds and soars, and stands tall by the work of Jennifer Aniston. I’ve liked Aniston since “Friends,” my single favorite sitcom of all-time but her film choices have left much to be desired. I never knew that Aniston could dig so deep. I pray to the movie Gods that this is not a one-trick pony for her career. Aniston allows herself to be submerged, and overtaken by all the things that plague Claire’s life. A single scene involving a large wall picture will bring many to tears.
Adriana Barraza is nearly just as effective as Aniston in a role that will hopefully remind Hollywood that they are not tapping into one of the finest actresses working today. An emotional pillar to the story, Silvana’s heart is worn on her sleeve, weaving in and out of Spanish, and presenting brilliant chemistry with Aniston. Sam Worthington continues to try to find his place in Hollywood. Subtle but emotionally distant for anyone to relish. Surprisingly moving, though brief is Chris Messina as Jason. He’s a role or two away from having THE role that propels him to stardom. Anna Kendrick is haunting in a performance that beckons and calls for a change of pace for the actress. Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy are effective in brief, underwritten roles. We also get a final look at the late Misty Upham, which is tragic on its own.
Overall, “Cake” hits the center of grief and loss just good enough to warrant a positive reaction. Jennifer Aniston‘s performance is something that most actresses will pray to be able to achieve, but never come close. An effortless turn that doesn’t fade in the distance or crumble under the cloud of a faulty script. She excels in a performance that demands respect from her peers, and movie-goers everywhere.
“Cake” is open in limited release and opens wide January 23.