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Sweets for the bitter

Film Review: "Cake" 

Sweets for the bitter

Jennifer Aniston's surprisingly long and crowded career, which really began with the successful television show "Friends," includes a variety of roles in some occasionally unusual movies. Although she has mostly starred in chick flicks and romantic comedies (probably a result of typecasting created by the TV series), she has also played a few unusual parts, notably the vicious, glamorous seducer in "Derailed" and the frustrated young wife smothered by drab reality in the crummy little town of "The Good Girl." In her latest picture, she takes on a role that differs quite drastically from her previous work, inspiring a loud buzz among the swarms of entertainment reporters and film reviewers.

In the new movie, the unfortunately titled "Cake" (the baked item takes on symbolic meanings late in the story), she plays Claire Bennett, a woman suffering an enormous burden of physical and emotional pain, the cause of which gradually emerges as the film progresses.  "Cake" opens gradually, with the barely heard voices of women talking as the initial credits roll, then shows the women seated in a circle, not a book club or a sewing circle, but that familiar gathering of our time, a support group, led by Annette (Felicity Huffman), an oleaginous therapist spouting the usual psychobabble.

Their discussion involves the suicide of one of their members, Nina (Anna Kendrick), an event that naturally devastates them all. Claire, however, recounts the bizarre circumstances of Nina's death and the long, strange journey of her body to Acapulco and back to the United States, concluding, "Way to go, Nina!" Not surprisingly, Annette calls Claire later and expels her from the group for her hostility and negativity. 

Having driven her husband away and assisted only by her kind housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza). Claire blunders through the movie, drinking, popping pills like Rush Limbaugh, and sleeping with her gardener. Throughout her progress the causes of her condition slowly reveal themselves -- her scarred face, her stumbling walk, the pain in her legs all result from an automobile accident; worse, she lost her young son in the same accident. She dwells in a state of drugged passivity, interrupted by nightmares and hallucinations. 

Those hallucinations, in which the dead Nina appears and converses with her about her condition and the methods she uses to deal with it, provide the only real insight into the interior of Claire's mind. Nina berates her for sleeping with Nina's husband Roy (Sam Worthington), himself consumed by the same anger that burns in Claire. Nina also constantly invites Claire to commit suicide and end all the pain, a possibility that Claire keeps approaching but never quite accepts.

Apparently having gained weight for the part, Jennifer Aniston looks almost aggressively plain. She covers her newly dumpy body in plain, nondescript outfits, wears no makeup, keeps her hair stringy and unkempt, and maintains an impassive, virtually affectless demeanor in almost every scene, except for a single violent moment that in effect explains everything about her.

Her choice of the role of a badly damaged person without any attempt at softening the character or enhancing her appearance is the sort of thing that wows the usual crowd of corrupt incompetents who hand out the innumerable cinema awards.  No wonder the lap dogs of the entertainment media express surprise and disappointment that she was not included in the Oscar nominations. Playing a deliberately unattractive and disabled person usually guarantees praise from the various voters' warm little hearts. Appearing in almost every scene, she certainly performs competently, but her part remains so insistently on one level of emotion and reaction that even her pain grows tiresome.

As for the movie itself, it also suffers from the virtually monotone level of emotion and action, so that it often looks as if the director were simply filming the same people, the same events, the same outcomes, over and over again, with minute and generally predictable variations. Although most film critics confront a really extraordinary range of subjects, themes, and circumstances -- and I have probably seen them all -- on a personal level, I must confess that I have great difficulties dealing with movies that revolve around the death of a child, which prejudices me to some degree against "Cake."

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