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Films I Neglected To Review: Cake And Coffins
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Cake" and "The Humbling."

When "Cake" first appeared on the festival circuit a few months ago, neither the film nor Jennifer Aniston's dramatic performance as a woman suffering from chronic pain made much of a ripple and it seemed to be one of those films destined to slip between the cracks until finally appearing on some lesser cable channel. However, thanks to an aggressive publicity campaign and a surprise Best Actress nomination from the good folks behind the Golden Globes--based solely on the work and not out of their desire to get as many celebrities to attend their ceremony, of course--Aniston soon became part of the Oscar conversation with some observers stating that she was not only a shoo-in for a nomination but was now a front-runner for the prize even though most people had not even heard of the film, let alone seen it. As we all know, the campaign turned out to be in vain as Aniston was passed over for a nomination--it seems as though the Academy decided to include Marion Cotillard for her work in "Two Days, One Night" for no other reason that it was the single best performance from an actress last year (shallow, eh)--and as a result, "Cake" is now being dribbled out into only a few theaters in what was presumably the original distribution pattern for the film before all the award talk began.

Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes story of "Cake" is infinitely more interesting than the film itself. Essentially the cinematic equivalent of a "New Yorker" short story that you never quite got around to finishing, it offers the sight of a singularly unpleasant woman who, for reasons that defy explanation, is compelled to seek out the husband (Sam Worthington) of a former member of her pain support group (Anna Kendrick) who recently killed herself and who now haunts her dreams in between extended jaunts with her long-suffering maid (Adriana Barazza) in search of more pills to dull both her physical and emotional pain. The story is as dull and pedestrian as can be--it is pretty obvious right from the start that our anti-heroine will eventually find her moment of catharsis that will allow her to finally move on with her life, giving the rest of her tale a marking-time quality--and cannot decide whether it wants to be a dark comedy or a sincere drama and veers wildly and unconvincingly between the two extremes. From a a cinematic standpoint, it has been brought to the screen in the blandest and least spontaneous manner possible--if IKEA catalogues could move, curse and offer heaping helpings of wine and whine alike, they would look like this movie.

As for Aniston, this is hardly the radical stretch that some have claimed--she has done a number of non-comedic roles in the past--but since her character is such a patently unbelievable, inconsistent and unlikable construct, she can't really do anything with it except to hope that her lack of glamorous makeup will somehow translate into "serious" acting. Frankly, the only thing about "Cake" that makes any sense is the contributions by the music supervisor--after all, if you are going to be making a film dealing with chronic pain, putting Billy Joel and a wispy-voiced folkie rendition of Beyonce's "Halo" on the soundtrack goes a long, long way towards putting viewers in the proper frame of mind.

Although they have all had careers of late that could politely be called uneven, the notion of combining the talents of Al Pacino, Barry Levinson, Buck Henry and Philip Roth into the same project is still enough to inspire a certain degree of enthusiasm in the hearts of most dedicated film fans. Alas, it only takes a few minutes for "The Humbling," the film that brought them all together, to squander nearly all of that goodwill on an aimless and ultimately tiresome work that takes their combined decades of experience and somehow still manages to feel like amateur hour. Based on Roth's not-particularly-good 2009 novel, the film stars Pacino as an aging actor who, as the story opens, cracks up on stage one night and ends up spending 30 days in a mental institution. After being released, he returns to his remote Connecticut home--possibly to lick his wounds, possibly to blow off his head with a shotgun--when he finds his solitude invaded by a string of increasingly daffy visitors, including a much-younger lesbian (Greta Gerwig) who is nevertheless passionately in love with him, the lesbian's ex-lover (Kyra Sedgwick) who wants her back and a fellow resident at the institution (Nina Arianda) who wants him to kill her possibly pedophiliac husband for her--after all, she has seen him kill people in the movies, so it shouldn't be that big of a deal.

Because the film co-stars Greta Gerwig, an actress who generally inspires the same kind of reaction in me that fingernails on a blackboard do for most people, you might assume that my severe dislike for "The Humbling" is due largely to her presence. In fact, she doesn't even appear for the first 20 minutes or so and by that time, the film is already pretty much on the ropes. Although Henry's adaptation of Roth's book makes any number of changes that help to alleviate its more misogynistic aspects, the screenplay is still a meandering work that aims to be a bitter comedy about aging but which quickly curdles into an unpleasant and unedifying mess that has been brought to life, sort of, by Levinson (who shot most of it in his own home) without much energy or style. (Even "The Bay," his recent excursion into low-budget horror, demonstrated more cinematic verve than he manages here.) All of the female characters are one-note cliches and while the actresses give it their all (yes, even Gerwig), none of them are able to make much of what they have been given. Pacino, on the other hand, gives a more understated performance than has been his wont in recent years--his infamous histrionics are kept to a bare minimum--and while his work is a little more interesting as a result, it still isn't enough to warrant a recommendation.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=3729
originally posted: 01/26/15 11:22:09
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