In ‘Cake,’ a Tortured Jennifer Aniston Gives the Performance of Her Career

The creamed and pampered beauty totally strips herself of her usual glamorized movie star trimmings

Screen shot 2015-01-20 at 5.19.51 PM
Ms. Aniston’s sheer courage grows on you, like a lichen.

Before her breakthrough, career-enhancing performance in Cake, Jennifer Aniston was the prettiest and most versatile alumnus of Friends, but to the hard-edged worker bees in the Hollywood hive, she’s always been respected but unrewarded—just another drone, but never a queen. With Cake, she finally wears a crown, and makes real honey.

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(3/4 stars)

Written by: Patrick Tobin
Directed by:
Daniel Barnz
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Sam Worthington and Anna Kendrick
Running time: 102 min.

In this impressive film, directed by Daniel Barnz from a screenplay he selected from a screenwriting competition, the creamed and pampered beauty, now in her mid-40s, totally stripped herself of her usual glamorized movie star trimmings, without a shred of makeup, hair style, or any of the designer lotions and youth creams she peddles in TV commercials, to tackle the hardscrabble role of a tortured woman named Claire, suffering from pain, drug addiction and visible self-abuse. Wearing nothing but Chapstick, she shows wrinkles in the chin, circles under the eyes, and a worn-out mask of physical despair. Overweight, with stringy brown hair and clogged pores, wearing shapeless off-the-rack discount clothes, she is clearly a wreck with no interest in self-improvement, bearing the scars of emotional emptiness.

In her nondescript Los Angeles ranch-style bungalow, she shuns the sunlight, sleeps all day, wolfs down painkillers and inflicts a cruel, demanding bitchery on everyone she knows, including a long-suffering, sympathetic and loyal housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) who drives her across the Mexican border to buy illegal drugs which she hides in a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost and hopeless causes, and an ex-husband (Chris Messina) who threw in the towel and left her long ago. It takes nearly an hour and a half before we learn the reasons for her unrelenting angst, and sometimes the wait grows tiresome. But the sheer courage of Ms. Aniston grows on you, like a lichen. So does the movie.

In her chronic pain support workshop, Claire becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow member of the group (Anna Kendrick) to the point of retracing her steps on the overpass above the 105 freeway where she jumped. Then she inserts herself into the lives of the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and son, befriending them out of mutual loneliness fueled by a warped sense of purpose. It’s an odd, compelling study in depression and desperation, leavened by a star turn by Ms. Aniston that makes Claire a poignant and sympathetic character despite her numbing self-indulgence. Guided by director Mr. Barnz’s compassionate direction, she submerges herself so completely in the role that it doesn’t even seem to be her face, her skin, her body or even her voice. Depression is a tricky subject for a movie aimed at a target audience that is depressed enough already. But this one justifies its challenges to feel-good escapism through honesty and integrity. In the end, when Claire finally takes her first steps toward recovery and redemption, you may want to cheer.

In ‘Cake,’ a Tortured Jennifer Aniston Gives the Performance of Her Career