Synopsis: Cake stars Jennifer Aniston as Claire Bennett, a woman with a great deal of physical and psychological pain who becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman who attended the same support group. Dory Hoffman: According to Jennifer Aniston, playing the role of Claire Bennett was a “beautiful human experience.” In Cake, we meet Claire after a horrific car accident. As a result, she suffers from muscular and neuropathic pain. She is prescribed a strong painkiller, Percocet, which has a fairly high level of oxycodone—but the pills last two hours, if that, and the pain is unyielding for Claire. The film earns its “R” rating in part because of Claire’s “drug abuse.” Yes, Claire and her maid make a Perc run to Tijuana, but I wouldn’t exactly consider Claire’s use of Percocet “abuse”—unless we’re going with DEA logic where any use of a controlled substance is abuse. Walking the fine line between drug abuse and self-medication, Claire also deals with misanthropic rage, death, loss, divorce, PTSD, and depression—so the fact that she’s merely popping Percs with wine is a little shocking. But once we get to know Claire it becomes evident that she doesn’t want to spiral out into a Lindsay Lohan drug-binge. Thom Young: I hadn’t heard of this movie until you told me about, Dory, and the movie app on my phone gave little information—and, in fact, gave somewhat incorrect information. Your description of it would have pulled me into this film much more than did the app that is supposedly designed to get people interested in movies. All my app told me is, “The acerbic, hilarious Claire Simmons becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group.” Not only did the app have the wrong name for Jennifer Aniston’s character, I don’t know that I found Claire to be “hilarious.” She’s certainly an acerbic character—and she is also a facetious character (which, of course, I love)—so I loved her acerbic and facetious sense of humor. Anyway, you said you thought the film looked good—and I am mostly in agreement with your tastes. However, I was initially concerned about how good the movie was going to be during the opening scene in which Felicity Huffman’s character, Annette (the leader of the chronic pain support group), came across more like a parody of a support group leader rather than a believable character. I’ve attended support group meetings for people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder, and while there is an obvious effort to be affirmational in those types of meetings, they usually don’t slip into an imitation of Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley. During the opening minute or two of Cake, I half expected Annette to say to the group, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!” However, I knew I was going to like this film once Aniston’s Claire began to speak with her acerbic wit. Dory Hoffman: Claire is acerbic, yes, but maternal as well—not the type of person to do ALL the drugs for her chronic pain. There are even times when she doesn’t take the pills at all—so she can feel the contrast. And Jen does an excellent job being that person, which contributes to character and story—both strong in this film. Thom Young: I liked how the film didn’t provide more exposition than was necessary. Other screenwriters or directors would have inserted some clunky dialog in the opening support group session—dialog in which we learn exactly how Claire became so physically and emotionally scarred. Instead, we are able to piece together what happened to Claire from separate conversations and interactions she has with other characters; it’s how we usually learn about someone if we don’t actually speak to that person directly. We observe a person over an extended period and learn by processing the genuine bits that seep through the cracks of the façade. Verisimilitude is the biggest demand I have for any story—though it’s a quality that differs from story to story. For instance, The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, and Cake all possess verisimilitude for me even though they are widely different types of stories; they are all believable within their respective fictional worlds. A story such as Claire’s in Cake requires a greater degree of believability with respect to how actual conversations occur in life—which is why the opening scene of Felicity Huffman channeling Stuart Smalley worried me so much at the time. It lacked likelihood in how Huffman delivered her lines. Dory Hoffman: Yes, the way Claire’s story is gradually revealed is one of the many areas where Cake gets it right. In addition to great characters, the story itself is wonderfully done. Patrick Tobin’s screenplay is heartbreaking, brave, and very well researched. And, as you say, what’s interesting is that what caused the trauma has only a small role in the film—which makes sense because, with chronic pain, the cause becomes irrelevant after a while. Pain is pain whether it’s a car crash, a neurological disorder, or idiopathic (cause unknown). More importantly, with Claire, the cause of pain is not a terminal illness. That element is integral to the telling of the story because it allows chronic pain to stand alone. Many screenwriters conflate terminal illness with chronic pain. So while we have thousands of great cancer flicks, Cake is really the first chronic pain film I can remember. The closest we’ve been to chronic pain on screen is Dr. House from House—and Dr. House (played by Hugh Laurie) has a lot in common with Claire. They both use caustic humor to cope with pain and misanthropic rage. Because often with chronic pain comes a deep, burning hatred of every single person who is not in pain. Sometimes the hatred is in the subconscious, like having an idiopathic panic attack in a gym (cause unknown). Other times, the murderous rage is palpable, and it takes every ounce of energy not to attack these smiling, happy people. And Claire, who’s in a dark place already, doesn’t have the energy to deal with the typical American healthies. Not to mention, we’re talking about Southern California healthies—yogilates instructors and wellness consultants. People who would say to someone like Claire, “Exercise makes you feel better! Try it!” or “You’re so lucky you don’t have to work out!” An entire culture obsessed with sports, athleticism, and being fit—it’s torture for Claire. Everyone else is going on 10Ks for charity, and Claire can’t even sit up in the car. Thom Young: Of course, the fact that she can’t sit up in the car isn’t due to her physical pain. Throughout the movie I was under the impression that she rode in cars the way she did because lying down eased her physical pain. It wasn’t until the end of the movie that I realized the actual reason for the way she chose to ride in the car. However, as with the rest of the story, the reason for Claire’s peculiar car-riding habit is not specifically given. However, once it’s clear that it wasn’t due to her physical pain, there is only one viable interpretation for why she rode around lying down. I suppose I pretty much gave it away just now, but that revelation was significant to me because I went through something similar about seven years ago. My situation wasn’t as bad as Claire’s in the film, but when I realized what was really behind the way she chose to ride in cars I immediately identified with it. It was my “reader response” moment in the film—just as you seem to have identified with other aspects of Claire’s situation. It’s probably this anger that fuels Claire’s acerbic and cutting humor. Dory Hoffman: And it’s that humor that both Jen and Claire use as a coping mechanism. On Good Morning America, Jen said her window into the character was finding that she had that humor in common with Claire. Although Jen has never coped with physical trauma, she has experienced some form of emotional trauma (Brad Pitt break-up?). That ability to tap into a damaged part of herself helped her understand that Claire is not a full person. Jen says Claire is a “former shadow of a human.” Personally, I noticed that Claire was a shadow from the movie poster alone. It portrays Claire in what could be a snowstorm or a drug-induced haze of fuzzy white, contrasted with her piercing blue eyes. There’s a dullness to her eyes, and you can imagine the Percocet wearing off—the searing pain returning to her arms, legs, and back. Now imagine nerve pain shooting from head to toe—like little ninja stars coursing through your veins. To deal with the pain, you might clench your jaw so hard you break a tooth or cut your knuckles punching through a wall. Pile on nausea, fainting, dizziness, and mood swings from painkiller withdrawal, and you understand Claire. Dealing with this incessant pain takes courage. Good thing she’s quite the badass. In fact, Jen’s portrayal of a person in excruciating pain was so accurate, that hundreds of chronic pain sufferers reached out to the actress. I don’t write to celebrities, or I would’ve congratulated Jen on nabbing Justin Theroux. However, I am grateful that there’s finally a movie about chronic pain—and, on top of that, it’s extremely well-written. Jennifer Aniston is simply amazing in this role. What makes her so amazing is that she found a way to truly inhabit the mind of someone in pain instead of someone who Googled pain. All too often, when characters are supposed to be traumatized or hurting in some way, it feels contrived. To be believeable, the character needs to see the world through the lens of that pain instead of just describing it—and that can be difficult to pull off. Dr. House (also called “acerbic”) did an excellent job by tapping into a very dark place. He was a brilliant doctor who could heal everyone but himself (and House fans know how literal that is since he operated on himself). House is great because it plays on the archetypes of Sherlock Holmes, the drugged-up detective (House) and his morally sound friend, John Watson (James Wilson). House even lives on 221B Baker St like Sherlock Holmes (admittedly in New Jersey). Additionally, House and Holmes both inject morphine; the only difference is that House adds Vicodin where Holmes adds cocaine. I see those archetypes again with Claire (drugged up detective, looking for meaning?) and her very own Watson, maid Silvanna (Adrianna Barraza, Drag Me to Hell). When Claire powers on, popping pill after pill, some might wonder…how is she getting through the day on drugs? Think of it more like…how could she get through the day without them? Of course these drugs are sedating, but nowhere near as draining as pain—at least for Claire and House. But as much as I loved watching House, they got the meds wrong. A lot. And when writers get scientific facts wrong, it takes the audience out of the story. House portrays a chronic pain sufferer who pops …Vicodin? He’s a brilliant surgeon and he takes weak-ass Vicodin? That’s like giving Tylenol to someone with a migraine (phenobarbital and caffeine would work). Thom Young: Yeah, I don’t remember what I was prescribed back when I suffered from migraines. I have had occasional migraines going back to my earliest memories of childhood. I grew up thinking they were normal; that everyone suffered from these pulsating pains in the head that are noticeably different from tension headaches. However, my migraines were usually mild enough that I could knock them back with a combination of Advil and Tylenol—and, of course, I’m always amped up on caffeine. However, about 15 years ago my migraines suddenly became debilitating for about a six-month span. They were hitting me every day or two, and they caused me to vomit and be completely incapacitated to the point where all I could do was lie on a couch and wait for hours until they passed. After scans of my brain that ruled out a tumor, the doctors diagnosed me as having severe idiopathic headaches, and I was prescribed some type of pharmaceutical. Fortunately, I have since gone back to my occasional migraines of a milder variety. Dory Hoffman: Yeah, for migraines, I have Fioricet on me at all times (phenobarb/caffeine), gun range ear plugs, and sunglasses. When the light sensitivity, nausea, and blinding pain hits, I know that pill will buy me two pain-free hours. True, it causes nausea and dizziness, but at least Fioricet is a pill that I can drive, write and go to work on. Unlike ketamine, which was prescribed to me for intolerable nerve and muscle pain. The prescription I have has thirteen refills, and I was instructed to use it three times a day. But getting hopped up on ketamine only killed muscle pain and half of nerve pain. Not to mention, I couldn’t drive or function well. After two doses, I ended up watching The Hungry Caterpillar and really getting it, man. I didn’t feel pain and I didn’t care if it came back—there was just this emptiness. And that emptiness is magnified in Claire, who has a severe and heart-breaking condition. After the painkilling effects of the meds wear off, she’s left with dry mouth, nausea, and the spins. Imagine a patient’s anesthetic wearing off mid-surgery—it’s not pretty. The spins, are in part due to oxycodone withdrawal. In Cake, the audience can see Claire deal with the agitation and searing pain that accompanies that withdrawal. I would argue that Claire is not addicted to pain meds, but there is some overlap. Use of Percocet (what Claire) takes, could cause withdrawal symptoms after merely two days of use. The biggest symptom being migraines. And we can see Claire’s eyes narrow with that light sensitivity and what I can only describe as a complete system shut down until Percocet makes it into the bloodstream. Then we see the true half-life of the drug, the big pop when it finally kicks in after 20 minutes (five if she snorted it, but that wouldn’t be true to her character). Given the sheer level of pain Claire experienced on a day-to-day basis, I wondered why she wasn’t on something stronger like ketamine, morphine, or Oxycontin. But Oxycontin just wouldn’t work. Think of Oxycontin as a shot of 80-proof vodka and Percocet as a strong cocktail. Going along with that analogy, Vicodin is light beer. Oxycontin seems like it would be good for chronic pain, and in some ways it is, but Oxy (chemically close to morphine) has a myriad of side effects that would’ve put unnecessary restraints on the plot-line. With chest pain and the threat of total respiratory failure, the movie would be called Overdose. So I understand the reasoning for not putting her on anything similar like ketamine, morphine, or heroin. Yes, Claire is in pain, but we still need her to move and talk. As we know from Trainspotting, heroin affects dialogue in a big way. Besides, there’s really only one substance that effectively alleviates nerve pain, and it’s not an opiate. But why not marijuana? Medical-grade marijuana is the only substance that assuages nerve pain. That’s why it’s prescribed to patients with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and MS. And since this is a film set in California, Claire could get medical marijuana fairly easily. However, I see why the screenwriters didn’t make this choice either. Many nerve pain sufferers oppose smoking/eating the drug for various reasons. And Claire just doesn’t seem like the type of person who would smoke marijuana. Even if she would, like thousands of other patients, she doesn’t question her doctor’s orders; she takes the FDA pills she’s prescribed. For some reason, people in our society are still very trusting of doctors and the FDA (or perhaps suffering from side effects, like apathy). Thom Young: You say “for some reason” like you don’t really know the reason, Dory. I think most people conform to the images that are presented to them in the media as to how they are supposed to be. The flood of symbols, paradigms, narratives, and myths that surround us influence our behaviors, conceptions, and perceptions. These cultural codes influence (actually limit) the way we think about ourselves and others by creating a context in which we judge other people and (even more importantly) in which other people judge us. A person in our culture may choose to either do what an authority (such as a physician) says to do or choose to not to do what the authority says to do. However, in either case the person learns to expect that others will view him or her within the context of the code of obedience and conformity within our society that has been established through our cultural media. You say Claire doesn’t question her doctor’s order—and that may be true—but what I liked most about the character is that she wasn’t afraid to go against what was expected of her. She disobeyed and did not conform to socially acceptable standards as much as someone else might have. As for obeying her doctor’s order . . . sure, she takes the drugs that are prescribed because they help alleviate her pain—at least for a few hours. As a character, Claire actually struck me as the type of a person who would smoke medical marijuana—and that the reason that option wasn’t in the movie had more to do with the studio and/or producers being timid about audience reaction to medical marijuana, which is still a controversial topic in our country. I can’t cite anything to support my assumption that it was simply a timid decision by the people financing the film, but that’s the sense I had while watching it. Dory Hoffman: I can see how you might interpret it in that way. However, I don’t really see marijuana as controversial. I mean when American Beauty came out in 1999 and Kevin Spacey’s character smokes pot it was a big deal. And the producers/directors had to answer for it several times. But it’s 2015, and I have to remind my friends that outside of DC/Maryland marijuana is more than frowned upon. And Cake is so Southern California that I feel like pot would be too much. I mean they have a wonderful actress play the maid—and that keeps the relationship she has with Claire from being a cliché. By that I mean, rich white lady with a Hispanic maid as her only friend. And I think adding marijuana to that would just be too many clichés for one situation. And with American Beauty the marijuana was very much symbolic depending on who was smoking it and why. With Cake, Claire is in pain and she needs something that will help. The Percocet doesn’t change meaning, it’s just the pill that mostly works and fucks up the rest of your body in tandem. Besides, a movie where a hot girl smokes weed for neuropathic pain already exists. That other movie, Love and Other Drugs, is about dealing with severe illness by letting someone be your guardian angel. BTW, it really helps when your guardian angel is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As Alanis Morissette sings in “Guardian,” anyone struggling with pain deserves a guardian angel: “You, you who smiled when you’re in pain/ You, who soldiered through the profane … You, you in the chaos feigning sane. You who has pushed beyond what’s humane” (Havoc and Bright Lights, 2012). And that’s exactly who Claire is. She’s past the point of smiling and spends most of her energy “feigning sane.” With chronic pain, that’s one of the most exhausting things to do. Being in pain takes energy, burns calories, and is just outright debilitating. Not to mention that Claire’s in too much pain to eat enough—so she’s basically a sloth (consuming just enough calories to survive and thrashing her claws when threatened). But she does have many guardian angels throughout the film, especially her ex-husband, Jason Bennett (the loveable Chris Messina, The Mindy Project). I like to think that after the end of the film Claire and Jason find a way to be together—but perhaps I’ve seen too many rom-coms and Claire’s just found a way to be whole on her own. Thom Young: Yeah, I didn’t see a way for Claire and Jason to reconcile their marriage (I don’t think they were divorced yet, but were in the process of getting one). I see them remaining friends, but their shared tragedy and emotional pain is probably too great for them to be together as more than friends. I liked how the film ended with that revelatory moment for both Claire and the audience that I mentioned earlier when Claire finally sat up in the car. I liked that part because I could identify with it to some extent. Eight years ago I was in a fairly bad car wreck. While I didn’t suffer any physical damage other than bruised ribs and compressed rib cartilage, the psychological trauma was enough to make me avoid driving on an Interstate highway for a year or two—and to literally flinch anytime another car came too close to mine. My fear went away gradually over time. Claire’s was a kick in the eye, and it solidified my love for this acerbic and witty film. Dory Hoffman: Jen has outdone herself here and definitely earned the many nominations she’s racked up for Cake. It’s rare when a film tackles a difficult issue and does it right. Cake is a wonderful film, making up for all those medical dramas and their weak-ass Vicodin. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.