From all the accolades Jennifer Aniston has been getting for playing a scarred, suicidal, pain-ridden accident victim in Cake, you'd think she'd never acted before. That's what a decade of sitcom fame on Friends and nonstop tabloid scrutiny can do to a girl. Yet clear evidence of Aniston's dramatic chops can be found in The Good Girl, The Object of My Affection, Friends With Money and Life of Crime.
So what is it about Cake that's finally made critics think Aniston can do more than smile pretty and make us laugh? It's not the film itself, since director Daniel Barnz lets Patrick Tobin's script go soft around the edges. It's Aniston, a no-bull force of nature, who toughens things up. She doesn't skim the surface of Claire Simmons, an L.A. divorcee hooked on painkillers; she inhabits her with restraint, bruised emotion and scathing wit. Instead of playing Claire's symptoms – scars on her face, chest and back – she finds what's raw and festering underneath.
We first meet Claire at a group therapy session whose leader (Felicity Huffman, doing insufferably smug to a turn) brings out the worst in Claire. Asked to express feelings for a fellow member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), a young mother who took a suicide leap off a freeway overpass, Claire salutes her for having the balls.
At home, Claire relies on Silvana (a sublime Adriana Barraza), the Mexican housekeeper who puts up with Claire's shit even when, despite acute physical pain, she screws the gardener and insists, since she can't sit up, that Silvana drive her across the border for illegal drugs, a scene that's funny and unexpectedly touching.
The plot doesn't thicken as much as congeal when the drug-hazed Claire has conversations with the ghost of Nina and starts visiting the dead girl's hunky husband, Ray (Avatar's Sam Worthington), and their young son.
If you can't see where this is going, you've probably never seen a movie before. But the script plods on, complete with an ending that futilely tries to tidy up the scenario strands. Miraculously, Aniston maintains our rooting interest. Yes, she's deglammed (that's not Rachel hair). Yes, she's damn near on her own up there. But she pulls it off triumphantly and cuts straight to the heart. Way to go, Aniston.