In Cake, Jennifer Aniston takes on 15 extra pounds and takes off the makeup, and what the audience ends up seeing is a normal-looking person, not a movie star.
It’s not a radical transition, like the one Charlize Theron made in Monster (from beautiful to ugly), but something a little more complicated and less from out of nowhere. Usually the Platonic ideal of average, Aniston in Cake is simply an average woman.
This feels so right and so appropriate as the next step for Aniston that the decision to make Cake barely registers as brave, but it was. Beautiful movie stars do not let you see the lines on their face, and when they let you into their bedrooms, it’s not to show you what they really look like in the morning.
To strip yourself down to normal while the world still worships your illusion is like Samson sitting down in a barber’s chair.
So making Cake required confidence on Aniston’s part — in the nature of her appeal, in the intelligence of her audience, but mainly in her own talent. There’s no safety net in this movie, no falling back on charm. There’s also no co-star to lean on and no escaping the scrutiny of the camera.
Aniston is on screen at virtually every moment, and half the time we’re looking at nothing but her face. If she blew it, this would have been an epic embarrassment. She didn’t blow it.
Instead, her performance is a triumph that might go some distance toward redefining her in the eyes of the public. She plays Claire, a 40ish woman suffering from chronic pain. Gradually, her story comes out, but all we know at first — and all you need to know now — is that she experienced some trauma in the recent past.
Every move hurts. She can’t turn without wincing, and she has scars on her face.
She also seems to have a knack for alienating people. Then again, when you’re in pain, who has time for diplomacy? Within her first five minutes of screen time, she unnerves her touchy-feely support group and gets a nervous phone call from her ex-husband.
She is drinking and taking pills around the clock and seems to be half-hoping she will accidentally kill herself. Her only contact is with her maid — Claire is well-off — played by Adriana Barazza with subtlety and complex emotion.
Cake follows Claire as she goes about her life, trying to find the reasons behind the suicide of a young friend (Anna Kendrick), but her search is half-hearted. In truth, Cake has a loose, structureless quality, which is partly a strength and partly a flaw.
It’s a design that absolutely required a powerhouse performance at its center, or it would make no sense. Or, to say that more positively, director Daniel Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin provided the space for an actress to become the whole movie, and she did.
What makes Aniston, of all actresses, especially right for Cake is that her comedy has always had a certain ruefulness underlying it, an understanding of life’s limits, a kind of glum acceptance. So the transition into sadness and desolation is a natural step for her. There’s a sex scene in this film that is so loveless, so bleak, so without tenderness or even lust that it’s haunting, an emblem of how, with just a little bad luck, a life can go off the rails.
But with Aniston, there’s no sense of shock at life’s reversals, but rather the impression that she knew all along how things might go for her, and that time has just confirmed her worst suspicions.
Of course, she should have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, especially this year, with such a weak field. Unfortunately, the studio arranged for few screenings and sent links when they should have sent DVDs. Even then, with one hand and four fingers tied behind her back, she was nominated for a Golden Globe.
But the awards matter less than what Cake shows. This is a real actress. (Perhaps now, finally, critics can retire their obligatory references to “Rachel” every time they review one of Aniston’s movies.) Beyond that, if it wasn’t already apparent before, this is someone for the long haul.
Aniston’s appeal has always been that of an exalted averageness. Olivia de Havilland had the quality decades ago, and Nathalie Baye has that in France. These are beautiful actresses who don’t seem out of reach, but rather seem emblematic of the average woman of their time. The good news of Cake is that it proves that Aniston can be appealing without being exalted or gorgeous, by simply being average.
That might not matter so much now, but it’s going to become very important in about 10 years.
Alas, American movies of today aren’t what they were when de Havilland came into her maturity, nor are they anything like the French cinema that has maintained Baye’s stardom from her 20s through her mid-60s. Still, on the basis of Cake, it’s safe to guess that Aniston won’t be one of those actresses who disappear at 50 or 55. People will continue wanting to see her, because they’ll want to see themselves.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas
Director: Daniel Barnz
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick
Rated: R (strong language, substance abuse, brief sexuality)
Running time: 102 min.