It's not hard to guess why critics and audiences might be turned off by Cake. For the first half, Jennifer Aniston's Claire is snarky with a comeback for everything, manipulates and abuses everyone around her, and indulges in a constant, expensive pity party, and we aren't told why. Once the meat of the story reveals itself, however, Cake is astonishingly clever, delicate, and emotional.
Claire Bennett is the apparent victim of an unexplained accident that left her with chronic pain, a bad attitude, and a trail of broken relationships. After a woman in her pain support group commits suicide, Claire tracks down the woman's husband in a curiously misguided search for answers.
It's not the most unique premise, but screenwriter Patrick Tobin takes the story in unexpected directions, avoiding cliches and handling the subject matter with surprising grace. Director Daniel Barnz could have used some more time in the editing room -- certain side characters and subplots get either more or less time and background than they deserve; why Anna Kendrick's character made it past a rough cut is beyond me -- but in his hands a wordy screenplay becomes visually interesting, moves along at a comfortable pace and is backed by a reflective, unobtrusive score. His direction, and so the movie, really won me over at the climax, where after an hour and a half of sarcasm and one-liners Claire shuts up for once and finally lets the pain in. It's a beautiful, heartrending scene, and the decision to rest Cake on Jennifer Aniston's shoulders was absolutely the right one.
I never thought much of Adriana Barraza in Babel and have only seen her in a couple of other movies but she adds so many personal touches to the role of Claire's maid/cook/home health aide/best friend, she has a real talent for empathy and nuance. Jennifer Aniston, though, is the standout. She clearly reveled in the chance to break away from Rachel and she aced it. There's a tiny moment where Sam Worthington's character tells her she's messed up, and she plays the reaction shot so completely differently from anything she's done in the past - that's when I really started believing her in the role and she only got better from there. She nails her character's dry sense of humor and selfishness, and knows exactly how much charm to give her to make her watchable if not likable. It's a seriously committed, seamless, career-defining performance and she'd be my pick for this year's Oscar.
Verdict: watch it for Jennifer Aniston, walk away pleasantly surprised.