Is “Cake” an Effective Look at Dealing with Pain and Overcoming Trauma?


Cake (2014) does get many things right. It shows how people can completely transform in the face of serious loss. It shows how difficult life can be when experiencing chronic pain, and what that pain does to the sufferer’s relationships with others and their views of life and the world. It shows how trauma and pain can end relationships, cause hostility, lead people to addictive behaviors, and make them want to end their lives. There was conviction in Jennifer Aniston’s performance that felt real, and which makes it easy to believe the physical and emotional pain she’s living with.

Where Cake doesn’t completely succeed is looking at how to overcome and manage that pain. Instead of finding appropriate care and management for her physical pain, Claire abuses prescription drugs and sources them through inappropriate and illegal means. Instead of consulting physicians and regimenting treatment, she sweet-talks prescriptions from doctors or smuggles them from Mexico. She ditches her support groups, family, and friends to talk to a hallucination of a girl who killed herself, then befriends that girl’s husband. She’s a woman in a position to access the best resources society has to offer, and ignores all of them.

Almost the entire film is one-dimensional with Claire’s “recovery” to the point where audiences aren’t even told the root of her suffering until the film is nearly over. It’s hard to convey an effective examination of overcoming trauma when the source of the trauma isn’t even known. When Claire finally does make peace with what happened to her and her son, it’s so abrupt and predictable that it comes off tacky and contrived, as if to say “well, now that you know my problems, suddenly I’m all better.”

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian says,

“The relationships and plot transitions feel forced, and the trope of the ironic hallucinatory ghost is glib and cliched… As for Aniston, she gives an honest, well-intentioned performance, but it is marooned in an unsatisfying script whose emotional effects are unearned.”

Justin Chang of Variety’s interpretation of the film’s structure forms a strong opinion on Cake’s effectiveness as an overall piece about pain and recovery:

“Fittingly enough for a movie about addiction, “Cake” is predicated on repeated patterns of behavior — the compulsive manner in which Claire keeps checking her secret pill stash, or her habit of reclining all the way back in the passenger seat while Silvana drives, the pain being too great for her to sit up like a normal person. (Among other things, this is a movie whose final shot can be seen coming a mile away.) Some of these repetitions, it turns out, also serve as clues, forming a trail of narrative breadcrumbs meant to lead viewers into the true heart of the story, and to suddenly position Aniston’s antiheroine in a warmer, more forgiving light. It’s a clever ruse but a hollow one, not revealing or deepening Claire’s character so much as reducing it to an artfully scrambled puzzle. At the last minute, “Cake” becomes a film not about physical pain, but a different kind entirely, and one about which it doesn’t have all that much new to say.”