Monday, February 16, 2015

Oscars 2014: Cake

Aniston as Claire, living with chronic pain and grief
Cake (U.S., 2014) directed by Daniel Barnz, 102 minutes
                              *** SPOILER ALERT ***

I wanted to talk about another role that might have been overlooked by the Oscars and not just the nominated films. Jennifer Aniston was widely touted as expecting an Oscar nod as she had been nominated for both a SAG and Golden Globe for Best Actress (she won neither actually). 

There was so much buzz about Jennifer Aniston, the lead on this film, making herself "ugly" to get an Oscar nom. I don't know what's worse - implying Aniston is "ugly" because she looks like a normal, unglamorous woman dealing with chronic pain after a horrific car accident nearly kills her or the catty comments about Aniston's Oscar ambitions. I found the critical estimations of this film to be low and not particularly fair. Overlooked, as well, has been the performance of the Mexican actress Adriana Barraza as Silvana, Claire's compassionate maid/caregiver. 

Granted, it's not an easy film to watch at times. Clair Bennett is certainly a pistol: sharp-tongued, mean and demanding. She is a former lawyer living in Los Angeles who, prior to her car accident had it all: a successful law career, a loving husband and a much loved child, a beautiful home and pool. Aniston has certainly beefed up for the role and has decidedly permitted herself to be shown in unglamorous clothes and poses - in formless clothes and long sweaters that make her look frumpy and slovenly. 

Incapacitated by her pain and disfigured with severe scarring on her face and body, she manipulates compliant doctors for extra painkillers; brutally rejects her ex-husband's assistance and sympathy; treats the the gentle Silvana poorly; gets ejected from her support group for insensitive remarks about the recent suicide of group member Nina (Anna Kendricks); fights with her physiotherapist over her treatment; coerces the nervous Silvana to drive across the border into Tijuana to get some non-prescribed painkillers; and, has sex with the married pool man, Arturo. A real fun time gal. 

However, it's all about the context. She is extensively covered with scars (hence the "uglification" remarks in the media), moves cautiously like an old person because of her pain, and clearly can never work again under these circumstances. This does not a pleasant person make and Aniston portrays it honestly, without guile, without trying to make Claire sweet or sympathetic. 

The dialogue is sharp, caustic, thanks to a cleverly written screenplay by Patrick Tobin on whose short story the film is based (for example Claire says that she identifies with any animal that kills, like a shark and later she buys a shark kite for Roy's son's birthday).

In the past, Aniston's roles appear to have teetered between the "hot, sexy" overbearing female (We are the Millers, Horrible Bosses 1 and 2) or the "good girl" (most notably her on-going character Rachel on the TV series Friends, or the films The Good Girl, Marley and Me, Just Go With It, The Object of My Affections), or, the "quirky" sexy girl (Along Came Polly). This may suggest diversity but these roles mostly represent types - cartoonish female stereotypes - with little depth. 

The role of Claire is different - there is little to like here. Aniston's not necessarily brave as an actress for permitting herself to be shot in an unflattering way but she is brave in presenting herself as unlikeable - she, a much liked actress who is often described as America's sweetheart, the object of affection for "Team Jen" and all that media and fan nonsense after her divorce from Brad Pitt. 

Claire has her demons, specifically in the person of the re-imagined Nina who appears unexpectedly. She dreams that Nina is lounging alluringly in her pool. In her dream, Nina is trying to hold her down in the pool to drown her, urging her to die. 

Clair becomes obsessed with Nina and what drove her to suicide. She asks Silvana to drive her to the spot where Nina jumped on to the L.A. freeway and met her death. She shows up at Nina’s house and meets her husband Roy (an understated performance by Australian Sam Worthington whom we are more accustomed to seeing in an action film or video game) and lies saying that she used to live in that house so that she may enter it. Roy is forewarned that Claire is coming but permits her to see the house. Understanding Roy's acceptance of Nina's suicide becomes one of Claire's fixations. She waits for him at his home, accompanies him to Nina's grave, they drink together, and, sleep together platonically in the same bed. 

There's a curious but oddly satisfying non-sexual vibe here ... they comfort and complement each other. Claire loses her edge somewhat in his presence - is it because his grief is equal to, or greater than, her own? Roy, too, has a son and has suffered as much as Claire. Roy's underplayed grief begins to humanize Claire merely by his rational, calming presence. 

Claire begins to evolve. Perhaps she now understands that she is not the only one who suffers. She apologizes to the leader of the support group for her abusive, bullying behaviour; she lends Roy's son her son’s old bathing suit (entering her son's bedroom for the first time after his death); she is less abrasive with the beleaguered Silvana. 

Whatever advances Claire makes are undermined by the appearance at her home of the man who caused the car accident (a cameo by William H. Macy) who has come to apologize. She assaults the man and shortly afterwards overdoses on her pain medication. In the hospital, a passing glimpse of a commercial advertising a drive-in theatre in Riverside (the site of her first date with her husband) prompts Claire to visit the drive-in again with Silvana. There, Claire has a sort of epiphany when she wanders on to nearby railroad tracks about whether she should take her own life courtesy of another hallucination of Nina. After a few harrowing moments with Claire lying on the railroad tracks beside the imaginary Nina, a decision is made to live. 

In the last few scenes we see Claire making a conscious choice to keep trying to live rather than merely exist with her chronic pain. The resolution is simple, understated. She visits her son's grave, she brings Roy's son a birthday cake and a gift, she allows a portrait of her son to be hung in the living room by her ex. Baby steps, baby steps. It's a long road but she appears ready to try and navigate it now. It's an honest, unadorned portrayal of physical and psychic pain and, yes, Aniston deserved a nomination. 

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