‘Cake’: Jennifer Aniston fine but not Oscar-worthy

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When the Oscar nominations were announced last week, there was no best actress nod for a popular actress’ portrayal of a deeply depressed woman who experienced an unthinkable tragedy that led to the breakup of her marriage and has that woman practically sleepwalking through life.

I think it was one of the best performances of the year, and I urge you to check out Jessica Chastain’s work in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

Ah, but that’s not the “snub” people were talking about. The actress who was “snubbed,” i.e., she didn’t receive enough votes to crack the top five, was Jennifer Aniston, in “Cake.”

With respect for Ms. Aniston and the mostly fine work she does in an uneven film, I don’t think it was some grave injustice she didn’t receive a best actress nomination.

Yes, Aniston’s character has facial and body scars, isn’t in the best shape and couldn’t care less about her appearance. She delivers a strong, vanity-free performance as a woman who is both physically and emotionally scarred from a horrific tragedy. (Of course, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and dozens of other glamorous actresses have undergone drastic “make-unders” to serve a film role.) But as “Cake” swerves from dark comedy to cringe-inducing unpleasantness to heavy melodrama, employing one of the more tired clichés in the book along the way, even Aniston’s best efforts can’t elevate the work anywhere near the level of something special.

Aniston’s Claire is a bitter, sarcastic, almost casually cruel woman who seems to have no social filters. At a chronic-pain support group meeting, Claire applauds her friend Nina for committing suicide and goes into horrific detail about the nature of Nina’s death, apparently just for the sick thrill of shocking the group leader (Felicity Huffman) and the others in the circle.

In her comfortable suburban home, Claire is often curt with her kind and caring housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza in a wonderful performance). She summons the gardener into her bedroom for sexual trysts, and then dismisses him like a servant. (Claire is in such physical pain from the accident she was in, she has to coach the gardener every step of the way in order for the pleasure to outweigh the agony. It seems like a tie at best.)

When Claire’s not threatening to sue her support group leader, she’s scheming to get more pain pills, moaning to the ghost of her friend Nina (Anna Kendrick) and striking up what could be an inappropriate relationship with Nina’s widower (Sam Worthington). Even though we know Claire has been through hell and is still living on hell’s fringes, the rambling screenplay and what appear to be some arbitrary shifts in Claire’s personality make it difficult to buy into her as a genuine character and not a jumble of character traits.

A few moments in “Cake” did resonate with me. When the source of Claire’s pain shows up at her door, her reaction is fierce and frightening. (Although even that scene is slightly problematic. The actor playing the object of Claire’s hatred is so recognizable, we wonder if he’s going to show up again in the film. It’s one of those casting decisions where it might have been better to go with an unknown.) And when Claire and Silvana make an ill-advised trip to Mexico to score painkillers, there’s a nice moment when we see how Claire really feels about Silvana, her only true friend in the world.

There’s no doubt Aniston is showing range far beyond what’s required of her in dreck like the “Horrible Bosses” movies. Yes, she can act. I’ve lauded Aniston’s work in films from “Derailed” to “Rumor Has It” to last year’s “Life of Crime.” Spaced between the awfulness of “The Bounty Hunter” and “Just Go With It” and “He’s Just Not That Into You,” Aniston has done excellent work in good movies.

True, Aniston does maybe her best film work to date in “Cake.” But it’s definitely not her best film.

[s3r star=2/4]

Cinelou Films presents a film directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Patrick Tobin. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated R (for R language, substance abuse and brief sexuality). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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