Cake is one of these films you might feel sort of bullied into liking, or at least respecting, because it deals with heavy themes of grief and living with chronic pain and drug addiction among the white and affluent, because it features an ostensibly unlikable heroine whom we’re meant to come to love because we witness some arduous process of redemption, because it stars an actor who became famous years ago when she was young and bubbly and had influential hair, and here she is with greasy hair, facial scars, dumpy clothes and a shit attitude. But that bullying you feel is integral to Cake’s cookie-cutter schematics. Cake chokes on its own dramaturgy, its only icing here being that, yes, Jennifer Aniston, also conspicuously on board as executive producer, is pretty good as the blunt, un-ingratiating heroine whose body was mangled in some terrible accident and whose heart became paralyzed after the devastating loss of a loved one in that same accident. Without Aniston, or someone like her, Cake would not have been made, and without Aniston you would certainly have considerably less reason to watch it.
The set-up has plenty of intrigue: Claire (Aniston) seems to be stalking Nina (Anna Kendrick), a dead woman, who was in Claire’s cartoonish chronic pain support group, perhaps because Nina suicided and Claire envies her gumption. Claire blackmails her support group leader into disclosing Nina’s address so that Claire can go snoop around Nina’s home, which is still inhabited by Nina’s little boy and—look out!—her hunky husband (Sam Worthington). Also intriguing: Claire’s only other occupation is to feed her need for Percs and Oxys, which, in one of Cake’s better sequences, she enlists her devoted Chicana housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) to drive her down to Tijuana to procure. But the intrigue quickly dissipates once we get stuck watching the lamely written sequences in which Nina appears to Claire as some sort of bitchy ghost, or bitchy hallucination brought on by addiction and self-loathing. There’s also the issue of Claire really never seeming that unlikable a person—just one of many ways in which Cake goes soft. No doubt some will applaud Barraza, who got an Oscar nod for Babel, but those applauding surely don’t speak Spanish, because when Barraza goes to town, airing her grievances toward her employer en español, it is a flatly inflected tirade worthy of a telenovela hitting end-of-the-week exhaustion. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous character of a would-be starlet and thief from Boise who gets conveniently and awkwardly squashed into Cake’s final act. To be sure, there are far worse movies than Cake, but the ways in which Cake is bad are really annoying.