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Review: 'Cake'

Jennifer Aniston takes a routine "Cake" to a higher level.

Why didn't Jennifer Aniston get an Oscar nomination for "Cake"? The short answer to that question: With one of the five best actress slots taken by Julianne Moore for "Still Alice," there was simply no room for another routinely made health-crisis indie, salvaged by a strong, confident, unfussy turn from its female lead.

Indifferently received at last year's Toronto film festival, "Cake" comes from a script by Patrick Tobin that poses another question: How does a film deal with a protagonist in chronic pain without becoming a chronic pain itself? For reasons alluded to in carefully placed dribs and drabs, Los Angeles resident Claire has scars on her face and body, and plenty she's not yet acknowledging in her recent, tragic past.

Her life, at the start of director Daniel Barnz's film, is stuck in a painful neutral gear. Oxycontin and other painkillers have become a part of what's left of her life. The recent suicide of a woman (Anna Kendrick) from her recovery support group has driven Claire into new realms of solitude, with only her caretaker-housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) for limited company, plus an occasional, impersonal tryst with her handyman.

"Cake" charts a progression from a dark place to a lighter place, from misanthropy to community. The grieving husband of the Kendrick character, played by Sam Worthington, becomes Claire's friend and kindred spirit, while Claire's husband (Chris Messina) wonders what's in store for their marriage. It's all very neat and clean in terms of story progression and loose ends tied up efficiently. What's missing are the lived-in spaces between Claire's corrosive, truth-telling zingers.

No one should be surprised at this point that Aniston has real dramatic and comic range. In "The Good Girl" and several other projects, she's had the chance to assert it. Often, though, the "Friends" alum has been her own worst enemy in selecting crud, a lot of it profitable, she can improve without even trying.

Aniston has long conveyed a tightly coiled screen presence, and in subpar material ("Just Go With It," "We're the Millers," etc.) she has an understandably hard time hiding her skepticism. With "Cake," it's different; this clearly is a project, a role and an opportunity she relishes, and yet she has the instincts and the skill not to turn it into an outsized acting showcase. I wish the movie were messier, more surprising. But as with most of what we see, made on small budgets and large: The performances are not the problem.

"Cake" - 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language, substance abuse and brief sexuality)

Running time: 1:32

Opens: Friday

mjphillips@tribpub.com

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