The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Jennifer Aniston is one of the most famous people in the world. Her fame is weird, though. For whatever reason, the entertainment media has chosen to scrutinize her personal life with a zeal that makes most celebrity obsession seem tame in comparison. Everything - from her hairstyle, to her romantic life, to whether she is or is not pregnant at any given time - receives an inordinate amount of focus. This has had the effect of occasionally overshadowing her talent. One of the things I like most about Aniston is that she fights back against that. After starring in a string of predictable rom-coms like Picture Perfect and other things that fit comfortably in her wheelhouse, the actress started branching out with darker stuff like The Good Girl. More recently, she shattered her girl-next-door image with delightfully raunchy turns in Horrible Bosses and We're the Millers. Now she delivers the finest work of her career in the indie drama Cake.

Aniston plays Claire Bennett, a woman with substantial facial scars and a chronic pain condition. She attends a support group for other sufferers. One of its members, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick), has recently committed suicide. Claire becomes obsessed with Nina. That's because she, too, is severely depressed, and she recognizes there's a thin line between how she feels and whatever drove Nina to end her own life. Claire dreams of Nina frequently, eventually deciding that she needs to meet the woman's husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), in an effort to learn more about her. Meanwhile, housekeeper Silvana (an excellent Adriana Barraza) attempts to keep Claire functional during the darkest of her many dark moments.

The unglamorous role of a depressed, angry pain sufferer is not one you'd expect Jennifer Aniston to play, yet she handles it with consummate skill. The actress captures the many feelings of Claire. She's mad about the incident that left her scarred both physically and emotionally. She's resentful about the subsequent dissolution of her marriage to husband Jason (Chris Messina). She's worn down from always being in pain. These things come out in different ways. Sometimes it's through sarcasm or dark humor, which is where Aniston's comedic skills come into play. But other times it's through rage, and that's where the star really surprises. Aniston hits just the right notes of that emotion, so that we understand why Claire feels it (even if not entirely warranted by a situation) and even identify with her. She lashes out not because she's a bad person; she does so because she's trying to cope with things for which there are no easy coping skills. Aniston brings a lot of depth and range to the performance. You'll never look at her as an actress the same way again after seeing her next-level work here.

All of this makes it a real shame that Cake, in every other way possible, is standard indie-film boilerplate about overcoming adversity. Directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Patrick Tobin, the movie plays like a hundred other Sundance-esque pictures, just with chronic pain disorder substituted for some other disease or ailment. A lot of familiar notes are hit along the way, most notably in the big revelation about what caused Claire's injury, depression, and marital dissolution. If I asked you, based on other independent dramas you've seen, what the most predictable explanation for this would be, what would you say? Odds are you'd correctly guess it. The “twist” is that generic, as is the turning point that ultimately makes her reevaluate her life.

Furthermore, Cake never delves deeply enough into Claire's obsession with Nina. Only the most basic of explanations is ever given for it, and dream sequences between Aniston and Kendrick are so jarringly out of sync with the film's overall tone that they feel borderline ridiculous. The relationship between Claire and Roy doesn't really go anywhere, either. It's very flat and uninvolving.

Cake is an odd duck. It has a brilliant lead performance from its star, yet that performance is surrounded by tiresome clichés and contrivances torn straight out of the Independent Filmmaking 101 handbook. (The title's metaphoric meaning, when finally unveiled, is especially cloying.) Jennifer Aniston's work here really deserves to be widely seen. She's that good. As fantastic as she is, though, it's tough not to wish that the plot would rise to her level. Or at least try.

( 1/2 out of four)

Cake is rated R for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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