Jennifer Aniston in Cake

Glamorous movie actresses often win respect through highly unflattering roles: Jessica Lange ranting and raving as the mentally ill starlet in Frances (1982), Nicole Kidman wearing dowdy outfits and a prosthetic nose as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002), Charlize Theron grunging out as trailer-trash serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Playing an unattractive woman has certainly been the ticket this year for Jennifer Aniston, whom I knew as a hairstyle before I knew her as a performer: as the scarred, brittle, nasty survivor of a horrific car accident in Daniel Barnz’s indie drama Cake, she’s collected best actress nominations from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Aniston is the only alumnus of the long-running NBC sitcom Friends who graduated to a serious movie career; now 46 years old in a business that spits out middle-aged women, she threatens to become a serious talent in noncomedic roles.

Her character, Claire Bennett, is a Los Angeles attorney still on leave from her job more than a year after the car crash that left her with scars all over her body (including her LA-tanned face) and chronic pain that keeps her awake at night. Claire’s bottled anger has turned so toxic that her psychological therapy group kicks her out, and her physical therapist is so frustrated by her lack of cooperation and progress that she’s ready to bail on her too. Claire finds relief only in casual sex (with the pool boy, who steals into her bedroom for an emotionless quickie) and prescription painkillers (which she’s begun stealing out of other people’s medicine cabinets and picking up across the border in Tijuana, escorted by her long-suffering housemaid). Occasional glimpses of the person Claire used to be—a cheerful, accomplished professional with a good marriage—only highlight what a wreck she’s become, encased in her own suffering and punishing everyone who crosses her path.

Aniston served as executive producer for the movie, which is generally what happens when a Hollywood actor finds a role that will allow him to stretch but that no one in the business would think to offer him. Aniston’s filmography runs the gamut from broad comedy to romantic comedy, yet ironically her comic chops serve her remarkably well in this breakout dramatic role. Claire’s trenchant perspective sets the tone—she’s a bitch, but a funny one—and Barnz plays many scenes for laughs even as the story’s tragic dimensions grow increasingly evident. Cake follows the formulaic arc of catharsis and healing too closely to be considered a major film, but its careful balance of humor and anguish, its sense of mirthless drollery, isn’t something you see every day. Whether or not Aniston ever gets another role like this one, I have a hard time imagining anyone else in it—and that’s the sign of a genuine actor.