Ten years ago, the screenwriter Audrey Shulman whipped up a quirky plan to find a boyfriend in LA: an amateur dessert enthusiast, she would bake one cake a week – 50 in total – and offer them to patrons at bars around the city. The practice, which she called cakebarring, became an ever-surprising tour of joie de vive, even after Shulman’s best friend, roommate and cakebarring partner Chrissy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
That’s the explicit basis, clear from the trailer and the source material, for Amazon’s Sitting in Bars with Cake, starring Yara Shahidi as Audrey’s counterpart Jane, a shy and hyper-organized mailroom assistant who bakes during her LSAT study breaks, and Odessa A’Zion as her childhood best friend turned LA roommate Corinne. This is a tale with a set mold, an arc without surprise: you know the cakes will lead to some romantic interest, and you know Corinne’s headaches, then seizures, aren’t heading anywhere good.
So it’s a lovely surprise, then, that Shulman and the director, Trish Sie, color around the obvious tearjerking emotional sketches with such detail (no doubt pulled, in some part, from Shulman’s own experience as a caregiver). Shahidi and particularly A’Zion’s portrayal of the yin and yang of best female friendship is vivid and, thankfully, spiky; the film’s dialogue has some awkward, clunky beats, particularly in any hospital scene, but Jane and Corinne have the fizzy, casual energy of two young women who have built a real home around their friendship, from jabs about each other’s underwear to a Post-it for a hot Task Rabbit guy’s number on the fridge.
Pre-illness, much of their dynamic is predicated on bringing Jane, who is too shy to talk to her work crush Owen (Rish Shah) and too meek to tell her lawyer parents that she doesn’t want to go to law school, out of her shell. Corinne is loud, spontaneous and ambitious, an assistant to music industry agent played by Bette Midler (nominally a prickly boss but spiritually the film’s godmother). Jane, somewhat unbelievably, only knows how to talk convection ovens at bars. With the anchor of a cake, everything gets easier – new friends, new crushes, new adventures, pleasant montages. It’s Corinne who convinces Jane to dedicate a year of their lives (they’re 24) to cakebarring around the city, which serves as their anchor as everything falls apart and delineates, by cake number and flavor, the passage of time.
Baking is a precise science, yet Sitting in Bars with Cakes plays fast and loose with its ingredients; if it were a cake, it would be lopsided and lumpy, full of holes and dense pockets. Core friendship aside, much of it is uneven. Owen is understandably an accessory to Jane’s life, but their romance feels underdone and plotted. As Corinne’s working-class parents from Phoenix, Ron Livingstone and Martha Kelly are distractingly over-affected, if eventually winsome. There’s a good stretch in the middle of its nearly two-hour runtime in which the film seems to forget the entire cakebarring premise, which does keep the timeline clear but adds a patina of cutesiness to the whole thing.
Sitting in Bars with Cake careens from zany bar-hopping to hospital, cake baking ASMR to cancer weepie. You could argue that that’s life itself – a lot of chaos, bathos amid the profound – but that’s giving too much credit to the film’s murkier, underdeveloped bits. Still, it has a lasting bittersweetness to it. Shahidi is capable if a tad recessive as the film’s emotional center, one whose can-do attitude is both grating and absolutely necessary. But it’s A’Zion’s performance that sparkles; her Corinne – vivacious and deadpan, her rapid-fire wit papering over a visceral denial – adds some much needed tartness to a recipe that could easily become too maudlin. “Most of the time, I don’t feel like a sick person,” she bitterly admits after a workplace-sponsored fundraiser for her illness, and it’s true; even as Corinne’s condition deteriorates, A’Zion’s performance maintains a distinct, bristly vitality.
Which means her absence is palpable, too; yes, this film did make me cry. For all its unevenness and visual pleasures – the perfect measurement of sugar, the yarn and pins on a map of LA, many luscious cakes – there is one inevitable conclusion that either convinces you or tips into soap, and in that regard, Sitting in Bars with Cake is a success. By the end of the film, I wasn’t particularly invested in whether or not Jane continued her baking career. But I really missed Corinne, too.