Cake is a movie about a woman who lives with chronic pain.
Claire, played by Jennifer Aniston, has the kind of pain that makes it difficult to move and difficult to be polite. She is cranky and bitchy and incredibly honest. She is also dealing with a great deal of emotional pain, although it takes most of the movie to find out why (actually, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happened way ahead of the dénouement). One of the ways she “deals” with that is by popping pills and drinking quite a lot.
Claire alienates everyone around her, getting kicked out of her pain support group, is fired by her physiotherapist, and is in the final stages of a divorce. Her only support and friend is her maid Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza). The movie is about Claire finding a way through the pain. She’s also trying to find a way through the suicide of a fellow member of the pain support group and in the process, figuring out whether she wants to live with her own pain.
I had great hopes for this movie. After all, it’s not often that you see chronic illness and chronic pain portrayed with a sense of realism, rather than as a subject of pity or mindless hero worship.
There are many things right with this movie. Aniston is good, maybe even very good. She gets most of the physicality of having chronic pain right, moving with a stiff exaggerated care that is accompanied by winces, involuntary groans, and spending much of her time with her teeth clenched.
I liked the meandering pace of the movie, not knowing exactly what had happened to this woman, other than it was something traumatic and life altering beyond the physical impact of the event. I loved the relationship she had with Silvana, whose heartfelt caring is met by both abrasive rejection and fear, Clarei’s desperate need for comfort tightly suppressed.
There were also things I didn’t like. Claire is addicted to painkillers or, rather, to the physical and emotional numbness they bring her. This addiction makes sense in the context of the character. Still, the advocate in me would very much like to see a good movie about someone who lives with chronic pain who uses painkillers because they are needed to cope with pain and without getting addicted. This movie is going to add to the public confusion around this issue, making it harder for those of us who need opioids to get through our days. If Jennifer Aniston got addicted, surely so will we. Right?
The not-so-subtle hints that the Claire should have gotten better by now and hasn’t because she doesn’t want to be better, irritated me to the point of wanting to throw something at the screen. It was simply too easy and, I believe, it reflected more about what the general public would like people in chronic pain to be, rather than any sort of reality. After all, getting better — both emotionally and physically — is as simple as deciding you want to be and then doing something about it, isn’t it?
Am I expecting too much from a movie? Absolutely. It could be argued that this is simply a movie about a woman who is dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event. As such, it is relatively unflinching, despite being anchored in stereotypes. Aniston is on screen for most of the movie and does much to elevate it from a bit of an incoherent mess to a strong portrait of a woman in pain. I just wish the movie had had the courage of its convictions and pushed the boundaries a bit more, instead of pulling its punches.
I would recommend that you see it, but be careful to enjoy it for what it is. If you have chronic pain, be prepared to roll your eyes and have a vigourous discussion with your companions about the realities of pain and opioid use when you go for coffee after the movie.