What I'm Watching: Cake

Thursday, February 5, 2015

It's taken me a while to admit this about myself, but I can be quick to write things off based on snap judgments and preconceived notions.  And it's very hard for me to overcome my own bias once it's there.  Like most humans, I don't relish admitting that I'm wrong, even if my original position either has no basis or isn't founded on anything real or meaningful.

Take the film Argo, for instance.  Historically, I haven't liked Ben Affleck.  I don't think he's a particularly compelling or even good actor, and I don't enjoy most of his films.  When I saw a preview for Argo, I was like, "No way.  Ben Affleck?  This movie is going to suck."  To be honest, I also thought the movie didn't look good.  A complicated, high-stakes political thriller set in the 1970s?  So not my scene.

But Jordan wanted to see it, and so one night when it was my turn to plan a date for us, I picked a restaurant that he liked and bought tickets to Argo.  "I'm probably not going to like it," I warned him.  "I'll try not to complain because I know you're really excited about this movie.  But don't be mad at me if I don't like it."

I really was trying to have a good attitude this time (this hasn't always been the case in the past), but deep down, I was like, "For real, this movie is going to suck."  I just hoped that I could bite my tongue once the credits rolled. 

But as the movie started, I found myself in a strange position: I was actually kind of enjoying it.  It was a weird feeling.  I was already amped up to hate this movie.  I'd seen the preview, made a mental note of Ben Affleck's critical involvement, and decided that I wasn't going to like it.  Period.  But there I was, sitting in the dark theater, actually excited by what I saw on screen and anxious to see how this complicated, high-stakes political thriller played out. 

And, I had to admit, Ben Affleck didn't totally suck.

That night, I happily ate my words and declared that I had loved Argo.  If I hadn't been so excited about the movie, my admission wouldn't have been so happy, but I liked it so much that by the end, I honestly didn't care that I had done a complete 180.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of saying that my experience going into the film Cake was much the same as Argo.  I was more interested in the subject matter of Cake, but I'm not a huge fan of Jennifer Aniston.  So I thought, "This is probably going to be a good movie, but Jennifer Aniston is going to suck.  Boo."

(If you haven't noticed, sometimes I can have a bad attitude.  I'm only human, but I'm working on it.)

So, so wrong again, and so, so happy to eat my words.  Because this movie is stunning.  

Cake focuses on Claire, a woman who has been left visibly scarred and in chronic pain after a car accident.  Her entire life has been radically affected by this event, having lost her job, her husband, and other relationships, and she is struggling with a severe addiction to pain medications, as well as significant anger and hurt.  When Nina, a woman in her support group, commits suicide, Claire develops a relationship with her widower and young son.  Through these relationships, as well as her relationship with Silvana, the woman who helps take care of her, Claire faces her pain, hurt, fears, and anger, as well as the past tragedies that she has been holding onto so tightly.  These people push and challenge Claire, bringing out the ugliest and most desperate parts of herself, but also giving her hope and helping her to move forward, even if it's only one tiny step. 

Aniston is simply magnificent in her portrayal of Claire, and I'm shocked that she wasn't nominated at the Academy Awards for her performance.  Watching her on screen, I felt her physical pain for the entirety of the film.  She captured the experience of living with chronic pain so perfectly, making simple tasks like walking, bending down, standing, sitting, or even lying down seem like they caused her significant bodily pain and effort.  Aniston also makes Claire such a beautifully human character.  She is so angry and bitter, so hopeless about her situation, and she has pushed many people out of her life.  She pushes away the people who love her and are closest to her, the people who want to help and support her, and she can be incredibly snarky and mean.  Because of this, a lot of people run away or write her off, unable to deal with her difficult attitude and seeming unwillingness to try to get better.  

But through it all, Aniston makes you feel compassion for Claire.  Seeing a woman who lives with constant and incredible pain every single day, you can't help but feel like her difficult attitude is understandable (even if it isn't necessarily justifiable).  Of course she's angry and hopeless and scared.  Her whole life is changed and may never be the same, and no matter what she does, she will likely be living with chronic pain for the rest of her life.  And that sucks.  

At one point, Claire apologizes to her therapist for being so difficult during their aqua therapy sessions.  She recognizes that she hasn't been doing her best work and has been uncooperative.  Then she clarifies, "I really am in a lot of pain."  This feels like such a big moment for Claire, when she says these powerful words, thereby admitting and owning the enormity of her struggle.  Like I said, it doesn't necessarily justify Claire's behavior, but it certainly contextualizes it, and it makes her such a human character.  It's easy to not see pain as a wholly valid medical complaint, in great part because pain is subjective and because there are a lot of people who still think you should just "suck it up."  Aniston makes you see how incredibly limiting this view is and why chronic pain needs be to treated not only physically, but also emotionally, particularly because it can lead people to feel desperate and hopeless, even causing some to contemplate suicide.    

Cake is an incredibly stripped down film, and it doesn't flush out a lot of the background details.  We don't know much about Claire's accident or her injuries.  We don't know exactly what happened between her and her husband.  We don't know how she got addicted to pain killers or what her long-term prognosis is.  We are given similarly few details about Nina and her family, only finding out very late in the film that, like Claire, Nina suffered from chronic pain.  While part of me wanted to know all of these details, to have each back story completely filled in, I actually think Cake's incredibly focused portrayal of Claire at one particular moment is incredibly successful and moving.  We aren't clouded by history, making judgements of Claire based on her past.  We see her as she is now, and it doesn't really matter what the particulars are that got her here.  

Moreover, in not flushing out the back stories in great detail, Claire's story feels more universal.  She can be anyone who has struggled with chronic pain, hopelessness, anger, fear, hurt, addiction, even suicide.  Her story is not just her own, but rather a meditation for anyone who has ever been in her situation.  And I think in doing this, the film presents an opportunity for us to reflect on and discuss how we treat these sort of issues, as well as how we can better treat, help, and support individuals like Claire who struggle with these sort of difficult physical and emotional wounds.  

Five out of five stars.      


  1. I actually hadn't heard of this one until she was nominate for a Golden Globe. It sounds really good, and I love Jennifer Aniston! I think it would be hard to watch, though, probably. I just can't imagine going through life like that, and I'm thankful I haven't had any major health problems up to this point.

    1. It is definitely hard to watch, especially because Aniston is so incredible at conveying just how much pain Claire is in. Watching her sit in a chair were some of the most difficult moments in the movie - you don't usually think of sitting down as a painful activity, but for her it's excruciating. Like you, it made me so thankful that I haven't had to deal with chronic pain like this.

  2. Jennifer Aniston was fantastic in this movie. I think I went into it with a similar apprehension, namely I am not a huge Jennifer Aniston fan (she was my least favorite of the friends on Friends). I was pleasantly surprised. She was definitely snubbed at the Oscars. It was a truly compelling performance and a very evocative movie.

    1. Totally agree. I thought for sure she would be nominated. I feel like the Academy likes nominating the less traditional "award-winning" actors when they turn in a noteworthy dramatic performance (a la Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side), so Aniston seemed like an obvious choice. Plus, I agree that her performance was incredibly compelling and evocative. What a shame!


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