Cake: A Film Review
“Do you want to get better? Really? No bulls***. Do you want to?”
The question is directed at Claire Bennett, a woman suffering from relentless chronic pain due to a tragic accident in which she also loses her young son, played by Jennifer Aniston in the 2014 film Cake. I had been wanting to see this film for quite a while and I’m glad I finally watched it the other night. If you still haven’t seen it, here’s a link to the trailer if you’d like a little preview: Cake Official Trailer. But be warned, there will probably be some spoilers in the trailer and in this article as I give my review and thoughts about the film. So if you don’t want to know anything about the film before seeing it, then please see it first!
When I first heard about Cake and that Jennifer Aniston, a big Hollywood star, was doing a movie about someone suffering from chronic pain, I was immediately curious to see it and to see what sort of portrayal she would give. Would/could her acting do us real chronic pain sufferers justice? I hoped so. I also hoped that her major celebrity status would make a lot of people go see the film and give chronic pain and chronic illness some much-needed media attention.
Jennifer Aniston’s acting skills did not disappoint in her portrayal of a woman living with severe, daily chronic pain. Throughout the film she moans, gasps, winces, and sucks in her breath at nearly every movement. It was so realistic that it was hard to watch and hard to keep watching for the movie’s full 102 minutes. But I did keep watching, because I was compelled to find out what was going to happen to her, despite her debilitating pain and a life that seemed consumed with anger, bitterness, misery, loneliness, and cynicism.
Well! What a fun movie to watch, right? Believe it or not, Claire is actually very funny. Her sharp, dry humor is full of biting sarcasm, and it feels like she can’t stop her anger from spilling out of her mouth in brutally honest comments. And they’re darkly funny, on-point comments, often putting someone in his or her place, like the annoying woman who is the leader of Claire’s women’s chronic pain support group who kicks Claire out for having a “bad attitude.”
Claire is too tired and apathetic to care if she has a bad attitude. And I totally get that. However, just watching her carefully ease herself, wincing, out of a chair, or hearing her quietly (and sometimes quite loudly) groan with each stiff, agonizingly slow move she makes gets to be pretty exhausting (it’s also depressingly all-too familiar, personally). Her dark, negative, hopeless attitude becomes even more tiring. Not too surprising, Claire contemplates suicide throughout the film, after a young woman named Nina from her support group killed herself by jumping off a bridge into traffic. It’s frightening and incredibly sad to think of chronic pain driving a person to suicide, but when you look at the quality of Claire’s life, which probably mirrors that of many people in real life, keeping hope alive can become a major struggle.
But back to the quote at the beginning of this article, which is from a scene in the film where Claire is having a physical therapy session in the pool and she finally admits to her physical therapist that she’s in bad pain. Earlier in the film, you see her participating in pool therapy but she’s sarcastic, flippant, and uncooperative with her therapist, instead of being honest about how she’s doing.
“I am in a lot of pain,” Claire finally admits to her therapist, as they sit together at the edge of the pool.
“I know,” says the therapist, looking intently at her.
“Sometimes I suspect that you think I’m this uncooperative old b*tch who’s just making all of this up,” sighs Claire.
The therapist looks at Claire again and asks, “Do you want to get better? Really? No bulls***. Do you want to?”
“I do,” says Claire.
I’m so glad and relieved that she does want to get better, despite the suicidal thoughts, the obsessive weird hallucinations and nightmares of Nina, the anger and sadness, and her physical and emotional isolation. It feels like as soon as Claire says out loud that she wants to get better, she starts to make some small positive changes in that direction. She apologizes to the support group leader for her negativity and rudeness toward the woman. And while she still barks at and bosses around her loyal housekeeper, Silvana, you can see her start to realize and appreciate the kindness and support Silvana has given her for many years.
Then there’s the unusual relationship that slowly forms between Claire and Nina’s widower, Roy, whom Claire has befriended in a sort-of friendly yet bristly manner. Silvana invites him and his son over for lunch one day, much to Claire’s initial horror. But then we see Claire shyly wearing a new dress and sporting fresh, curled hair, when during the majority of the film she’s basically decked out in pajama clothes with stringy, limp hair hanging in her face. She’s making an effort and she finally has something and someone to look forward to.
In spite of all of the physical pain and the emotional breakdowns (crying, yelling, depression, hurling insults at others, swallowing an entire bottle of pills), by the end of the film Claire begins to allow herself to have hope. Hope to actually live again and not just exist, slamming glasses of wine and cocktails and narcotic painkillers on a daily basis, and spending the days she actually leaves the house lying flat on her back in the car while Silvana chauffeurs her around from place to place.
In the final scene of the film, Claire is in the car with Silvana, about to leave the cemetery after visiting her son’s grave. Once again, lying flat on her back, hidden from the outside world, they prepare to drive off. Claire groans and sharply sucks in her breath, gripping the sides of the car seat. She lets out little cries as she makes tiny movements in preparation to finally sit up for once in the car. But then she gives up, panting, and falls limp, still lying on her back. The feelings of disappointment and frustration and sadness just at watching these few moments are poignant, I think, seeing someone trying so hard to do something that most people take for granted. Yet this struggle and failure also feels true to life, and I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t make it.
OK, so now what? A surprise moment later, Claire musters up all of her strength and anger and hope and pain and finally GETS UP. Cut. Black screen. Rolling credits. I love this ending. I love that Claire is an angry crabby b*tch, full of rage and sadness and anxieties and loneliness from her pain–because I am too sometimes. What I love even more though is that she’s a fighter, although it’s hard to tell at first. As a person living with significant pain every day for the last nearly 18 years, I’m also sick and tired of the pain, but I don’t want to ever give up.