I saw the movie Cake tonight. I felt it was my duty. I am, after all, a pain specialist.
I’d read that it was gritty, honest, and accurate, and that Jennifer Aniston was very convincing. I found all that to be true.
It’s the show’s first weekend in Louisville theatres, and the crowd at this 5:30 p.m. showing was decidedly mature, reverently attentive, and noticeably equipped with more walkers and canes than I’m accustomed to seeing at the cinemas. I almost felt like I was in a pain support group. Perhaps in a way, I was.
I went in expecting to not like the movie. And if it had been a movie just about chronic pain, then I might not have been won over. However, Cake is not so much a story about chronic pain as it is a story about dealing with loss.
Claire, played by Ms. Aniston, initially comes across as an angry, bitchy, sarcastic, and self-centered woman, who clearly has legitimate pain and the scars to prove it. But as the story unfolds, and it is gradually revealed to us the degree to which Claire’s life has been altered by tragedy, a sad empathy takes root.
It’s not that Claire doesn’t have people in her life who care about her. On the contrary, is seems that everyone in her life is trying to help her. In fact, I wouldn’t say there is a real villain in the story. Claire is struggling to climb a mountain. And we, like the people in Claire’s life, feel powerless to help. So we just watch, hoping she can hang on and have some sort of epiphany.
Where the movie begins, Claire is several months removed from the tragic event that caused her life-changing pain and loss. She is clearly living the chronic pain existence: from her pleasant but over-booked doctor, to the impersonal waiting rooms where she winces as her number is called instead of her name, to the group therapy from which she is “fired,” to her continuous preoccupation with obtaining pain pills — often times via demeaning and risky methods.
As a pain physician, I felt myself wanting to treat her — wanting to provide for her a regimen that was not insulting, dehumanizing, or uncaring. And I hope all health care providers who see this movie are moved in such a way that they see their patients as people who, more than pain, are grieving over what they have lost: autonomy, freedom, happiness, self.
And despite the script’s inclusion of so many themes common in the lives of patients with chronic pain, I hope that those people in the audience who were there with their canes and walkers understand that this movie is only about one person’s journey – not theirs. We all suffer loss. We all have pain. We all have a journey. And the journey is specific to the individual. There are no villains, but there are mountains to climb.
I thought Cake was a very good movie for general audiences, and a great movie for pain patients and pain care providers. My advice: Just make sure you allow yourself some time to process it afterward. Then you might find it really was a pain support group after all.