Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Jennifer Aniston leaves her well trodden path of playing romantic roles to portray a woman in chronic pain—as the film industry puts it, in a very de-glamorized role.
Directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Patrick Tobin, the film centers on Claire Bennett (Aniston) and her housemaid/confidante Silvana (Adriana Barraza) who have over the years moved beyond employer/employee relationship. Claire has developed such an attack dog attitude that the Older Mexican American is now her only friend. She has driven out a husband who still cares for her, and as we see in the opening segment, she is even asked to leave her pain support group.
In this darkly humorous episode we can understand why she has become persona non grata. The leader Annette (Felicity Huffman) has placed before the group a large photo of Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick), the group member who recently jumped to her death from a freeway overpass. When Annette asks how the members feel about Nina’s suicide, Claire responds with great irony and sarcasm, pointing out that she landed on the flatbed of a truck headed for Mexico. It was in Acapulco, that her body was finally noticed. Then it was put into a Rubbermaid container that was held up by customs at the border for six days before the husband could claim it. Claire applauds, saying that’s the way to go, to make it difficult for the survivors. Of course the others are more disturbed than amused, hence Claire’s forced departure. Her aquatic therapist Bonnie (Mamie Gummer) also grows tired of her negative attitude and suggests that she ought to find someone else.
Becoming obsessed with Nina, Claire frequently has dreams about her or thinks she sees her out and about. Nina keeps suggesting that Claire follow her example, either by jumping off the same overpass, or else drowning in her own or the health spa’s swimming pool. Curious, Claire shows up at Roy’s house (Worthington) with a lame reason for being there. He is Nina’s husband, now resentful that his wife’s departure has left him to raise their young son alone. After she looks around the house, he reveals that he knows who she is because Annette had called to warn him she was coming. It isn’t long before the two are keeping company, drawn at first by the grief that they share in common. But Claire’s negativity soon threatens to put an end to this relationship also.
Claire does have reason to feel bad, walking and bending being very difficult for her. The pain in her back is so severe that she rides in cars with the passenger seat in recline position. She has become addicted to the various pain pills that she can secure, by fair or foul means—in one segment, having run out of pills, she has Silvana drive her to Tijuana, to obtain some black market pills. Afraid to run out, she is constantly checking the hiding places around her house to make sure the containers are not empty. Gradually we learn that she was the victim of an auto accident that inflicted not only physical, but psychic pain on her. When she impulsively has sex one night with her gardener, she thanks him by giving him a plastic bin of toys suitable for a young child. Soon it is confirmed that they belonged to her son, now dead. The accident has killed her spirit and wrecked her marriage as well.
And yet Claire is still capable of kindness. A beautiful moment of grace transpires in a restaurant in Tijuana during the already mentioned trip to buy more drugs. Emerging from the pharmacy, Claire asks Silvana what is the best Mexican restaurant in town. She wants to treat her to a dinner out as a reward for all the extra claims on her time she has imposed. While finishing their meal two old friends of Silvana’s pass by their table. The women are obviously well off, and a bit snobbish. Sensing Silvana’s embarrassment over her plain clothes and the tone of her friends’ voices, Claire interrupts their Spanish language conversation by loudly thanking her friend for treating her to dinner. The waiter picks up on this and gives the change (or receipt, I’m not sure) to Silvana rather than to Claire.
Both lead actresses are marvelous in their parts, with the supporting cast also good. William H. Macy has a cameo part, important in that Claire’s reaction to his attempt to visit her might end her relationship with Roy and his young son. It also gives us the clue that she might be refusing to let go of her anger and resentment over the accident. Had Christ encountered her, he might well have asked, “Do you want to be made well?”
What she does toward the end of the film, involving both the cake of the film’s title and her posture while riding in a car, is very symbolic—and even hopeful. Even her story request, though typically Claire, hints of change, “Tell me a story where everything works out in the end for the evil witch.” And did you notice how she reacted when her husband replaced the large picture of their son on the wall of the living room?
People of faith, of course, will notice immediately her lack of faith. She never prays, and I seem to recall that someone—was it Nina?—called her an atheist. The only contact she has with religion is the statue of a saint she buys in which to smuggle her pills into the US. Thus as a thoroughly secular person she has few resources to draw on for her recovery, except for such gracious people as Silvana and, to a lesser extent, her former husband and now Roy and his son. But then, isn’t that how the God of the Scriptures works? Claire at the end of the film still has a long way to go toward wholeness, but she is making good progress toward it.
The review with a set of discussion questions is in the Feb. 2014 issue of Visual Parables, now celebrating its 25th Anniversary.