Cake, a Movie about Chronic Pain with One Heck of a Real Life Theme Twist, Part 1

The 2015 movie, “Cake” was a leap of faith, given its subject matter, chronic pain, with a poignant real-life, back-story, plot twist.

Not well received by the media nor by the public at large, in large part due to its subject matter, it was described as being… “Unbearable” ~ The New York Times; “Excruciating”; but then again, “Brutally honest” ~ Entertainment Weekly.

Like chronic pain itself it is hard for a by-stander or even close family and friends, let alone the movie goer, to really understand, witness or even come to terms with the oft-times horrendous, seemingly senseless reality of it.

“Trusting that there’s an audience out there for any film, even a good one, about chronic pain? Now, that’s brave.” ~ Entertainment Weekly

But there was more to this story than met the eye….

By almost all measures, Jennifer Aniston, the lead actor, gave a powerful performance given her “unsympathtic” character (Claire, a car crash survivor, riddled with scars and pain) earning her a People’s Choice award and a Golden Globe and an Academy Award “near-miss  ” nomination for best actress that year.

“It’s the desperate-for-relief look in her eyes and the way that every move she makes is an ordeal. Even the small groans and grunts she regularly emits are more agonizing in their restraint than a full-out scream would be.” ~ Roger Ebert

” Aniston is both poignant and caustic, bringing a weary physicality that makes Claire more than a soft-centered accident victim.”  ~ The Guardian

“It would be tempting to see Claire as either a monster or a sad victim, but Aniston sidesteps those traps, playing the character simply as a woman who’s brutally honest with herself and others. ” ~ Entertainment Weekly

“The acerbic, hilarious Claire Bennett becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group. As she uncovers the details of Nina’s suicide…she also grapples with her own, very raw personal tragedy.”- Ben Barnz, Director

“In Aniston’s nuanced portrayal, Claire’s essential compassion is never in doubt. The burning question is whether she wants to get better and, more to the point, whether she wants to live.” ~ The LA Times
The writer, Patrick Tobin’s, stated theme for the film was ” the question, ‘What is pain management?'” and his original idea for the film- to draw into question the use of prescription medicine. Tobin himself has devastating family history related to prescription medications gone wrong.

Aniston’s approach to the role of Claire was informed by her own pre-conceived ideas about the topic of pain medication, specifically, based upon her inspiration from her stuntwoman, Stacey Courtney, who was in a boating accident and became addicted to pain medication. 

To research the role though Aniston also spoke with the American Chronic Pain Association and Doctors.

But it is what in fact Tobin and Aniston learned from making the film- the harsh reality and struggle of living in chronic pain, including managing pain medication and the very real “choice” of suicide, that create the back-story that chronic pain sufferers will find so meaningful here….

Tobin, in an interview with the Daily Mail, was surprised to find,

 “I get a lot of e-mails now from chronic pain sufferers. I got a lovely letter …from a woman in Kansas saying thank you for translating my experience and dealing with it in the way you did.

 A lot of people have empathized with the character of Claire, and so that makes me feel quite strongly that the real message truly is that there is always hope and to never give up.

The message in this movie is that as bad as life gets there is always, always hope.”

Tobin believes the trick to living with chronic pain is “learning to come to terms with it, finding peace with it and learning to deal with it, in spite of everything.”


Chronic pain sufferers will identify readily with Aniston’s portrayal of “Claire” and too, celebrate the media and public’s awareness and attention to the, in this case very raw, portrayal of what living in constant pain can really look like (although of note here is the startlingly contradictory and unusual fact that Aniston’s “Claire” is financially secure, full time maid and all, something most chronic pain patients have lost, if in fact they ever had it, due to the high cost of a chronic medical condition).

Jennifer Aniston did, unfortunately, receive a lot of questionable publicity for the role with her character’s ” scars on her body, a haggard look on her face, and hair that’s so stringy it could have been shampooed with chlorine and bacon grease… the idea that Aniston should be celebrated for ”going ugly,” as the women of The View put it, is condescending both to regular women, (to the reality of those living with a serious health condition) and to Aniston herself, whose understated performance is far more nuanced than her bad drugstore make-up suggests.

But it’s clear from the start that Claire, (and Aniston) doesn’t want your pity. When we first meet her, she’s in a support group for chronic-pain sufferers, listening to others grapple with the suicide of Nina, a pretty young mother who once sat among them… Urged by the group leader to share her feelings about Nina’s death, Claire recaps the gory details of the suicide, upsetting everyone. ”I hate it when suicides make it easy on the survivors,” she deadpans.

Cake doesn’t want to make Claire easy on us, either… she’s alienated her nice-guy husband, her physical therapist, and her support-group leader, who ousts her from the circle…That is what makes her admirable, more than surviving tragedy: She just says whatever she’s thinking out loud.

…and the smaller scenes that focus on the everyday reality of depression (and chronic pain) stick with you, such as the shots of Claire lying awake in the middle of the night, uncomfortable in her own body, fighting to get back to sleep.” ~Entertainment Weekly

Public awareness, with its support and  compassion, for with Chronic Pain, and too, for the role and challenges pain medications present in their care and the significant rate of suicide amongst those living with the condition, is needed. Cake, and it’s “smaller scenes…that stick with you” offers a fine opportunity to do just that.

Author: ChronicPainDailyReflections

I manage a web-site, Chronic Pain Daily, created for and in support of those living in chronic pain. The site helps with the day-to-day spiritual, mental, emotional and physical needs of those with constant pain, whatever its source.