If nothing else, Cake is proof that an intriguing concept and a strong cast can falter if the material just isn’t there. Take the concept: a wealthy woman is slowly recovering from severe injuries, and dealing with harsh physical and emotional pain. Rather than giving her some sort of inspirational story, though, she’s erratic, cranky, and at times flat-out nasty. It’s refreshing, in a way, but the film doesn’t seem comfortable letting Claire be flat-out nasty more often, mainly by placing her against people who are too easy to knock over.
Take Silvana, Claire’s maid/de facto nurse. She’s the one character who has remained by Claire’s side since her accident, and with the exception of one blowout, she’s far too calm and forgiving with Claire’s behavior. To hear Silvana’s daughter talk about Claire’s behavior, though, you’d assume that Claire was deliberately cruel to Silvana. Most of the time, Claire’s actions with Silvana simply don’t take her into account, and Claire is typically aware enough if she crosses a line to backtrack.
More often, Claire’s just jaded in her interactions. The film opens in a support group, where members share their thoughts on the suicide of Nina, one of their fellow members. When prodded for involvement, Claire’s response is supportive of Nina, which upsets the rest of the group. It’s supposed to be shocking, but it’s actually refreshing after hearing the comments of other group members, who either call Nina’s actions selfish to her husband and child or make her suicide about themselves. In the moment, Claire’s actions feel good. The problem is that the film doesn’t really give Claire a good foil, or make her supposedly crueler side all that cruel in the first place.
The thing is, the film does hint at some interesting directions it could go. At one point, Claire has Silvana drive her to Tijuana in search of drugs to feed her dependency. When trying to figure out how to get the drugs back across the border, the pharmacist notes, “You’re a rich white woman. Have you ever been caught at anything?” There’s a certain amount of privilege that Claire has, and as much as it exists in the background of the film, it would create a more interesting topic if brought to the foreground more often.
That the film is able to still work as much as it does is a credit to Jennifer Aniston. Maybe it’s because her most famous role is still a sitcom that started two decades ago, or because most of her roles for the last decade have been in unremarkable money-makers. Aniston digs into Cake in a way that she’s rarely done outside of The Good Girl and The Break-Up. Her campaign for an Oscar nomination may have been unsuccessful, but hopefully she’s received enough attention to start pushing for meatier roles. With a better-written role, she may be a contender in the future.