By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Jennifer Aniston, blessed with exquisite comic timing that she has displayed over the years on screens big and small, has only occasionally ventured into drama.

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She does so again in Cake and acquits herself quite nicely, thank you very much.

(2½ stars out of 4)

(2½ stars out of 4)

We first meet Aniston’s acerbic and embittered Claire Simmons at a chronic pain support group in Los Angeles, where the members are trying to cope with the suicide of one of their members, Nina, played by Anna Kendrick (whom we will get to meet in a form of retrospect).

After other members in the group speak sensitively about their deceased friend, Claire shocks the group by chiming in in a harshly sarcastic way.  As a result, she is asked by the support-group facilitator (Felicity Huffman) to leave the group.

To witness and experience Claire’s bluntness and sometimes shocking, unfiltered directness is to realize that she is suffering from a lot more than just physical pain, however extensive that pain (the result, we eventually learn, of an automobile accident) might be.

We can see that pain is a debilitating constant in her daily life, but we sense that there is devastating grief involved as well.

She is somewhat estranged from her otherwise caring husband (Chris Messina), and she alienates and thus drives away her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer).  The only person she allows to remain close to her is her Mexican housekeeper and driver, Silvana, played by Adriana Barraza.

Despite what she articulated at the group meeting, Claire is haunted by Nina’s suicide to the point that Nina begins appearing as an apparition in Claire’s hallucinatory visions, at one point suggesting that Claire should get in touch with Nina’s ex-husband (played by Sam Worthington) with whom she had a young son.

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Claire’s not much for taking people’s suggestions these days, but, after all, it is her own hallucination.

Deglamorized and covered in prosthetic scars, Aniston, who has so often (but certainly not always) played characters not terribly far removed from her public persona, convincingly conveys the just-about-constant physical agony and pain, both physical and emotional, that she is plagued by.

And without using any familiar comedic mannerisms to endear herself to us, without backing away from a penchant for gallows humor, without resorting to broad comedy without the emotional baggage, and without begging for sympathy -– which she surely deserves –- she wins us over.

It’s a raw, vanity-free, superior performance and suggests that Aniston can surely handle a wider array of roles and genres than we’ve gotten used to seeing her in.

Director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland, Won’t Back Down, Beastly), works from a screenplay by Patrick Tobin that focuses on coping with, and transcending, pain.  But the script and its concerns don’t get as dark and deep as does Aniston in her role.

So we’ll bake 2½ stars out of 4 for a downbeat, darkly and disarmingly amusing, and ultimately touching comedy-drama, in which Jennifer Aniston, well outside her comfort zone, is the icing on the Cake.

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