'Cake' (R)

In Cake, Jennifer Aniston plays Claire, a combative, acerbic Los Angeles attorney who becomes obsessed with the suicide of a member of her chronic pain support group. She has clearly endured some sort of trauma — she’s got scars on her face and body, and she can’t even sit upright in a car — but at first, she doesn’t generate much in the way of sympathy.

She’s smart, with a sharp sense of humor. But her support group kicks her out for being too negative, and her physical therapist is fed up with her complaining and lack of effort. She lies to her doctor to get pain medication to which she has become addicted, and she’s casually dismissive of her housekeeper, Silvana, the only person trying to take care of her.

There are some who may lament Aniston’s choice to step out of her comfortable comedy shoes and little black dresses, but the decision was sound: The best reason to see Cake — the sort of film that makes your life look pretty good in comparison — is to watch her deliver her best dramatic performance to date.

Alternately haughty and trying desperately to hide what’s broken in her, Claire is the sort of role fortysomething actresses dream of: utterly unglamorous; biting; wounded. Aniston plays all of these facets well and manages to hint that Claire once was a person who easily felt empathy. In one scene in which Silvana (Adriana Barraza) is belittled in Spanish by wealthy friends, Claire, understanding the situation at once, steps in to defend her in the only way she knows how. Silvana’s devotion to Claire — who takes advantage of her, as Silvana’s daughter points out — is somewhat puzzling and left largely unexplained.

Director Daniel Barnz (Won’t Back Down, Beastly) reveals Claire’s story slowly, dropping rather obvious clues as to what happened to drive her away from her now estranged husband (Chris Messina). Claire has obviously been struggling for awhile when the film opens, but the suicide of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a woman she didn’t know that well, makes her suffering more acute. Claire can’t stop thinking about Nina, who jumped off a highway overpass and whose appearances Barnz dramatizes in hallucinatory drug-fueled dreams. The scenes feel clumsy at first, then start to make more sense as we ease further into Claire’s perpetual suffering. She doesn’t wonder why Nina killed herself. She wants to know why she shouldn’t.

The movie could take a turn for the trite when, under false pretences, Claire befriends Nina’s grieving husband (Sam Worthington) and meets his young son. But screenwriter Patrick Tobin is too smart to believe in a slick solution for Claire’s problems. Instead, he uses their tentative friendship as well as Claire’s relationship with Silvana to make his point: Other people are what keep us tethered to this world, not in a romantic sense but a purely human one.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Chris Messina, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy.

Director: Daniel Barnz.

Screenwriter: Patrick Tobin.

A Cinelou Releasing release. Running time: 102 minutes. Language, substance abuse and brief sexuality. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset, Grove; in Broward: Gateway, Cypress Creek, Sawgrass, Pompano.

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