Cake’ wallows in its own misery

Jennifer Aniston ponders life’s unfairness while swimming.

Two and a half stars

Cake Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Sam Worthington. Directed by Daniel Barnz. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The fledgling distributor behind Cake put a ton of resources behind its awards campaign for star Jennifer Aniston, which paid off with nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards (although nothing from the Oscars). Aniston’s lead performance is indeed the best part of this mediocre movie, a listless indie drama that never goes much of anywhere, with moments that are framed as revelatory but contain little in the way of revelation. The supporting cast is packed with ringers, including Anna Kendrick, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy and Lucy Punch, but their brief appearances substitute star power for insight and emotional connection.

Even Aniston is notable mainly for her uncharacteristically glamour-free presence, not that she doesn’t do her best with the role of Claire Bennett, a bitter lawyer suffering from chronic pain in the aftermath of a vaguely defined accident. Claire’s unpleasant demeanor hides a core of grief and sadness, which the movie calculatingly teases out over the course of its running time, without ever revealing anything meaningful about what happened to her. Claire inflicts her misery on everyone around her, most prominently her saintly housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) and soulful hunk Roy (Sam Worthington), the widower of a woman from Claire’s support group.

The movie’s most persistent and annoying device is Claire’s ongoing dialogue with Roy’s late wife Nina (Kendrick), who shows up as an apparition/hallucination to give Claire advice and hammer home the themes of the movie. There are flashes of dark humor in Claire’s outlook on the world, but they’re buried under layers of self-actualization nonsense. Aniston is so committed to the seriousness of the role that she rarely gets to use her natural comic gifts, even in scenes that should offer some relief from the grimness. The other characters (especially Mexican immigrant Silvana, a walking stereotype) come and go as necessary to prop up Claire’s emotional development. Except that Claire doesn’t really develop at all: About 15 minutes before the movie ends, Claire picks up a teenage runaway (Britt Robertson) in what could be the beginning to an entirely different movie, only for her to disappear two scenes later, another signpost on Claire’s journey to nowhere.

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