Each year, screenwriters kill off enough offscreen children to fill a Chuck E. Cheese. A dead son or daughter gives a movie the illusion of depth plus an easy explanation for whatever the script ladles on the surviving parents. Binge-drinking? Nymphomania? Sudden bouts of break dancing? Blame the wee coffin.
In Daniel Barnz's Cake, divorced lawyer Claire's (Jennifer Aniston) dead-kid symptoms are twofold: Physically, she's in agony from the corpse-white scars swimming up her arms and legs and across her face after the car crash that killed her boy. Emotionally, she's an imperious bitch with the money to buy whatever apologies she owes. Her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza of Babel, fantastic) tolerates Claire's commands — Silvana is as much mother as martyr, roles she plays both in Claire's well-decorated house and in her own home, where her daughter (Camille Guaty) chews her out for being so submissive. And in the few hours Claire has to herself, she pounds white wine, gobbles Percocet from her squirreled-away stashes, and occasionally floats fully clothed in the pool or has stiff-legged, impersonal sex with the gardener (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
We know she's impossible from the moment we meet her, at a support group for sufferers of chronic pain. One member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has recently committed suicide by jumping off a highway overpass. The group leader, Annette (Felicity Huffman), invites the room to voice their feelings and find closure. Claire freezes the mood by describing Nina's death in ghastly detail — we can practically smell the corpse.
Claire doesn't want to heal. She wants to punish. Though her frustrated physical therapist (Mamie Gummer) tries to get her to strengthen her back and limbs, Claire chooses to wallow. She lies to her clinicians to get more pills and, when those run out, orders Silvana to drive her to Tijuana with the passenger seat cranked flat so she doesn't have to sit upright.
The airlessness of Claire's surroundings — the solve-everything cash, the empty home — allows her depression to fill all the corners of the film. Cake is less a before-and-after study of tragedy than a vivid, if monochromatic, portrait of grief. Did Claire always have a morbid streak? Pre-accident, was she already a nightmare? Barnz appears to have no interest in what Claire was like before, though we can at least infer that she liked midcentury furniture. Aniston gives the character personality and heft, but the script gives the character nothing to do.
The film hinges on one question: Will Claire too kill herself? Her most significant interaction with the outside world is to pop by Nina's old house and ask her widower, Roy (Sam Worthington), for a tour, as though in retracing the dead woman's life, she could find the same courage to plunge off the freeway. Roy and Claire become tentative friends — they're like two spiders swirling down a drain, clinging to each other for survival. But they aren't soulmates, and with her own family already gone, Claire has even fewer reasons to live. When she gets sauced on painkillers, she hallucinates Nina giving her motivational speeches about self-murder. At a diner, Claire gets so agitated that she walks over to a booth and screams at the ghost, only to shake herself and realize there's no one sitting there in front of the cup of coffee and slice of pie. (Which begs the question, who conveniently abandoned a perfectly good slice of pie?)
I don't want to be harsh on Barnz. In this and his last film, the Maggie Gyllenhaal/Viola Davis school board rabble-rouser Won't Back Down, he's at least attempting to put female stories onscreen. And more movies should admit that not every patient wages an inspiring battle against illness. Some people, like Claire, hoist the white flag immediately — even when they can afford the best weapons. There's an irony that Claire, a victim with bottomless resources and no responsibilities, so easily crumbles, but the film doesn't press the point. As a result, Cake feels insecure and indulgent, a character study that can't make room for more complications. In a lesser actress' hands, even Barraza's role could have been cast off into the margins, but like the stubborn maid herself, the 58-year-old Oscar nominee insists she be heard.
But this is, of course, Aniston's film — the chance for the charming tabloid star to prove her chops. She acquits herself fine. Much has been made over her choice not to wear makeup — at least, prettifying makeup, as those scars certainly aren't natural. Yet it's her body that makes an impression, the visible agony in how she moves her arms and legs, engendering empathy with Claire's pain even when we wish we could off her ourselves.