Daniel Barnz's Cake is less a before-and-after study of tragedy than a vivid -- if monochromatic -- portrait of grief. Divorced lawyer Claire (Jennifer Aniston) is in physical agony from the corpse-white scars swimming up her arms and legs and across her face after the car crash that killed her son. Emotionally, she's an imperious bitch with the money to buy whatever apologies she owes the world. Her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza of Babel, fantastic) tolerates Claire's commands — Silvana is as much mother as martyr, roles she plays both in Claire's well-decorated house and in her own home, where her daughter (Camille Guaty) chews her out for being so submissive. And in the few hours Claire has to herself, she pounds white wine, gobbles Percocet from her squirreled-away stashes, and occasionally floats fully clothed in the pool or has stiff-legged, impersonal sex with the gardener (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
This is Aniston's film -- the chance for the charming tabloid star to prove her chops. She acquits herself fine. We know that her Claire is impossible from the moment we meet her, at a support group for sufferers of chronic pain. One member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has recently committed suicide by jumping off a highway overpass. The group leader, Annette (Felicity Huffman), invites the room to voice their feelings and find closure. Claire freezes the mood by describing Nina's death in ghastly detail — we can practically smell the corpse. Claire doesn't want to heal. She wants to punish. The film hinges on one question: Will Claire, too, kill herself? Aniston gives the character personality and heft, but the script gives the character nothing to do.