For Claire, the privileged and seemingly friendless Angeleno whom Jennifer Aniston plays in "Cake," physical pain has become not just a torment but an organizing principle. It defines her dependence on prescription drugs and on the housekeeper who watches over her with equal parts maternal compassion and unexpressed exasperation. Pain becomes Claire's strategy for keeping most everyone at arm's length.
Since the indie drama's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, much has been made of the star's deglammed, emphatically vanity-free performance in which she forgoes makeup and sports drab hair. But that's not what places her work here among her strongest screen performances. As an accident victim whose nearly every move is excruciating, Aniston lends the role an impressively agonized physicality and brings ace timing to the screenplay's welcome gallows humor.
It's a letdown that the film itself, written by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, doesn't take half the chances its leading lady does and is content to paddle around the shallows rather than plunge into the deep end.
In the opening sequence, Claire's stinging honesty gets her ejected from a support group for people with chronic pain. (An excellent Felicity Huffman is the blinkered-by-dogma leader.) Claire's refusal to buy into the therapy-speak of "closure," presented in all its sappy ineffectuality, makes her a fascinating and potentially heroic figure. But it becomes increasingly clear that the movie wants to position her mordant sensibility as a problem to be solved.
For the audience, the ostensible problem requiring solution is the matter of Claire's pain and aloneness: What caused the scars on her face and body, and why did she and her still-concerned husband (Chris Messina) separate? The film's episodic progress teases out these questions in a series of encounters, but the dots are connected well before the intended revelations, which rest on a hackneyed setup.
Where "Cake" taps into something fresh is in the relationship between Claire and her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), whose caretaking extends beyond the well-appointed hilltop home to Claire herself. Silvana drives Claire to appointments and more spontaneous destinations, like the Tijuana pharmacy where Claire restocks the pills she pops 'round the clock.
Barraza, of "Babel," provides a lovely low-key turn as Silvana, and though the depiction of the women's imbalanced relationship ultimately falls back on sentimentality, it's also a lived-in glimpse of contemporary Los Angeles that matches the movie's visual scheme. Tobin and Barnz eye the class distinctions between employer and employee with clear-eyed sensitivity. Claire may bark orders at Silvana, but in a well-played scene she helps her save face with a couple of snobs.
In Aniston's nuanced portrayal, Claire's essential compassion is never in doubt. The burning question is whether she wants to get better and, more to the point, whether she wants to live. In a series of fantasy sequences, the ghost of an acquaintance who committed suicide (Anna Kendrick) urges Claire toward self-destruction. In the quotidian sphere, Claire confronts questions of life and death through an affecting shorthand with the dead woman's widower (an understated Sam Worthington).
Against the odds, the ghostly intrusions work because they resonate as Claire's inner dialogue. They're far more believable than the sudden appearance of a man who might be considered the story's villain (William H. Macy). He might also inspire sympathy, but the misguided scene registers as nothing more than a script contrivance.
As "Cake" devolves into familiar territory concerning grieving, it loses its specificity and drive — if not Aniston's acerbity — and goes soft. It's as if the filmmakers are reaching for the closure that, so understandably, galled Claire at the outset.
MPAA rating: R for language, substance abuse, brief sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes