Aniston opts for serious role in ‘drab’ film ‘Cake’

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Aniston opts for serious role in ‘drab’ film ‘Cake’

Ah, to de-glam. It’s one of the surest shortcuts to newfound artistic appreciation: a bedraggled deviation into dowdy drama by a beautiful star. Acclaim by way of sweatpants.

“Cake,’’ in which Jennifer Aniston plays a bitterly grieving, caustically acerbic and chronically pained Los Angeles woman, belongs to a contrived kind of low-budget movie - drab and depressed, but predictably poignant - just as artificial as any blockbuster convention.

As Claire Simmons, Aniston has facial scars, stringy hair and a slightly frumpier frame. But this is also a very recognizable Aniston, whose deserved appeal has always depended on marrying her pert all-American girl-next-door with a glib sarcasm. In “Cake,’’ she has turned up her cynicism nob as far as it will go.

She lives largely holed up in her handsomely designed suburban LA home, popping pills, struggling with sleeplessness and haunted by appearances of a friend (Anna Kendrick) from her self-help group who committed suicide by leaping from a highway overpass. “Way to go, Nina!’’ Claire announces to the group, prompting its leader (Felicity Huffman) to show her the door.

Claire’s Mexican housekeeper Silvana (an exceptional Adriana Barraza) cooks food she won’t eat and shuttles her around town, usually in the pursuit of more pills. Claire lies reclined in the passenger seat, laid flat by back pain from the vaguely referenced car crash that left her scarred. Whatever the particulars, the accident’s trauma is eventually clear enough: Claire lost her son in it.

She crankily putters around, lashing out at most, lonely from the absence of her husband (Chris Messina), who, like everyone else, is tired of her hostile moping. All but Silvana have deserted her.

The audience is tested, too. “Cake,’’ directed by Daniel Barnz from a screenplay by Patrick Tobin, is in many ways less about Claire’s threshold for pain than our tolerance for hers. In one telling scene with her fed-up physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), Claire confronts her, insisting that her pain isn’t an act, it’s real. The therapist responds with a question: Do you want to get better, really?

The film very slowly builds to the always-expected catharsis. But by never fleshing out Claire’s life, “Cake’’ never expands beyond a wallowing in pain, which starts to feel more and more like a concept rather than a deep emotion.

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