The Cake Eaters Movie Review
The film tells the very simple story of how three generations of men deal with the death of one woman, their mother (for two) and wife (for one). Aaron Stanford is the twentysomething slacker who works in a high school cafeteria and is very protective of his deceased mom. Bruce Dern plays the aging father who carries on a long-term affair with a local shopkeeper (Elizabeth Ashley). Jayce Bartok is the elder son, a struggling musician who returns home when he hears the sad news, apparently just to look morose as he walks around town.
Showing how three generations of men deal with the central source of stability in each of their lives is a valid, potentially interesting premise. In The Cake Eaters, however, the stories are so uneven that the entire film feels fractured, like the spine is missing and the story has no binding. Even when they're on the screen together, these guys don't feel like they're in the same movie. Bartok's character is especially off in his own world, which never forms into an engaging narrative, or even a narrative that belongs in this movie. Dern's and Stanford's stories seem to spring more organically from script to screen, but their characters are so shortchanged and their performances so hindered by a lack of clear focus that it hardly makes a difference. These characters are crafted in such a general, lazy-indie manner that none of the good actors, try as they might, come off as anything richer than performers playing parts.
The one story fragment that sustains mild interest is Stanford's tentative relationship with a local girl (Kristen Stewart) who suffers from a degenerative neuromuscular disease that will, the movie makes sure we realize, kill her one day. The actors do their best to bring tenderness and reality to the situation, and the screenplay avoids some of the gaping pitfalls that could easily ruin such delicate material. Sadly, the looming death theme tarnishes the story's intrinsic interest, a cloying embrace of "dying romance" clichés that ruins the screenplay's most interesting thread and betrays the actors' goodwill.
The Cake Eaters is the feature directorial debut of actress Mary Stuart Masterson. It is interesting to note that, unlike most actors-turned-directors, Masterson did not write her own script. That causes a disconnect between director and material, because in a film that is supposed to be quiet and personal, it is not at all personal to its director. Jayce Bartok, the older brother in the film, wrote the screenplay from what must have been real-life inspiration, though for a personal story there is a surprising lack of unique perspective and characterization. Masterson can't relate to the material with anything more than a mild sympathy which manifests as rote, uninteresting filmmaking.
Of course, Masterson's direction is not the primary reason for the film's failure. Bartok's screenplay is the main culprit, a lukewarm mishmash of indie-movie staples and mourning family drama clichés. We form no attachments to the characters, specifically Bartok's, to the point where when he kneels down at his mother's grave, starts crying, and says, "I'm sorry," we don't know what he's talking about, nor do we care. Conflicts arise out of nowhere simply because it is part of the same tired formula that has plagued every other nauseating family drama of recent years. As a writer, Bartok fails to tell a story with even a hint of relatable truth; as a director, Masterson fails to rise above a simple, conservative, workmanlike visual strategy to breathe any sort of life into this flat-lining screenplay.
The film ends with screeching immediacy, as if the editor finally realized this was dead-end material and turned off the Avid without plunking the denouement on the timeline. The Cake Eaters (a title which, it seems, means nothing other than the filmmakers thought it sounded unique) fades out with a complete lack of any build-up or closure and does so with such meager fanfare that the movie essentially evaporates into nothing. I guess that's par for the course in a film that means nothing, says nothing, and shows nothing interesting or new. It is formulaic tripe, catharsis-by-the-numbers.