Whenever a film takes an unexpected plot shift to change the tone or rhythm, it must have a decent reason. The guarantee that one can’t get lost amid drastic tonal shifts always varies by the story on display. And in the case of Sitting in Bars with Cake, a hybrid romantic comedy/friendship drama inspired by real-life events, it was a massive pendulum swing I wouldn’t have seen coming. And even if I had made a note to watch the trailer beforehand, I’d have at least been scratching my head about the link between what the title precludes, and the remaining 85% of the script. A rather peculiar predicament with a meaningful yet flawed, slightly formulaic recipe.
Even with where it leads, the first few notes in director Trish Sie’s (Step Up All In) flavor palette still invoke a naive sweetness gravitating barely above the schmaltz of a Lifetime drama. At least it starts out that way, as an adaptation of screenwriter Audrey Schulman’s same-titled 2015 book and an associated online blog entry about her friend Chrissy Osmulski, skewing close to fact while taking a few fanfiction-y liberties. The former bears the most promise, navigating the novel oddity of “cake barring” across Los Angeles bars. An experiment of sorts for Jane (Yara Shahidi), a wannabe baker looking to break beyond her buffer gig at a Hollywood music PR film. She owes it to her successful paralegal parents to follow in her footsteps and enter law school, but that pressure takes an immediate backseat to her combination of a sort of thrilling social life and personal aspirations. Networking with bestie and junior exec Corinne (Odessa A’zion), and their boss Benita (Bette Midler), do have their perks.
It’s Corinne, the extroverted wild card, who insists on co-playing the field, using her exceptional kitchen skills as creative leverage. Thus begins a yearlong odyssey between the duo, carrying a different cake to a different bar every week, 52 in all. A wild trip complicated by Corinne’s sudden cancer diagnosis, mild parental meddling from both sides and Jane’s quiet crush on office legal rep Owen (Rish Shah). But it all circles back to Corinne, whose worldview and routine are challenged greatly by her illness. No longer can she be the freewheeling party girl, only a rock of wisdom for her close friend, and now caretaker.
From her start as a music video auteur, Sie’s idea of balance is barely existent. Working against an already teetering-to-one-side story proves a challenge to her process, justifying the feels but not any serious follow-through. Schulman’s worse off along the way, trying to capture a comical high and a humbling low from all sides. A film of this nature is better off choosing a lane and staying in it. Only then can its star break out to a higher frame of self-empowerment. What the film does best, leaning more toward the novel, weighs itself down tremendously with Jane being pulled apart emotionally, being present for Corinne while pinpointing, and later questioning her own goals. Neither gain clarity, mixed into a pan and frosted with sudden swing upon sudden swing added for good measure just before they wind up throwing the film off a reserved path, leaving Sie’s efforts starchy and overdone.
Shahidi’s performance is the most key ingredient in play, a binder keeping sugar content in control, never buckling down from that situational heaviness. Even as Jane and Corinne’s friendship builds in somberness, the film taking a needlessly grim turn in tandem, the lead role does plenty to avoid a sharp skid into that territory. A level head pressing on amid ardent struggle, coping with her friend’s prognosis with valid resilience and frustration. And above all, allowing the film to be as playful as it could be, tender when it must. Were it not for her, and an equally committed A’zion showing full range to a rediscovery of purpose, not shying away from emotional or physical declination as events transpire, the viewer would soon be lost.
The friendship angle is what makes this romp entertaining, almost undeservingly when looking past the baking. Whatever else is co-mingling with Jane’s waning resolve and Corinne’s chance for impact can’t occur on an equal plane. And that is just as much a shame, save for perhaps Jane’s need to play convivial for her folks (Adina Porter and Navid Negahban). The sort of single-note parents who’ve already laid the groundwork for their child’s future, trusting them to make the singular, correct choice. Corinne’s ma and pa (played with utter deftness by Martha Kelly and Ron Livingston), on the other hand, are quick to meddle, showing their eagerness to take over their kid’s caretaking, starting a whole kerfuffle on who’s more prepared for the responsibility.
The law school idea could’ve been eliminated entirely. Parental presences and Jane’s will she/won’t she crushing would also make sense without the fuel needed to propel all stagnant concepts forward through a methodical two-hour frame. At least Livingston wins out huge, countering and surpassing his unmotivated appearance in The Flash. So too does Midler as the boss; the little time we had with her left me wishing for more, despite it furthering the apparent Beaches parallel.
Neither Sie nor Schulman loses their grip on the mixing spoon here, taking each theme or character event with the same chip-on-shoulder. At the same time, they don’t quite exude any sort of standout quality on technique, belaboring a series of jarring transitions in and out of optimism, then in and out of bleak reality. Tying the two together barely works in the former’s directorial knack, with cohesion at a minimum, compassion meaningful yet still hollow. Shahidi and A’zion do a double yeoman’s job to keep the material on an even keel, denying their work of a sour taste long enough to reach a satisfying enough conclusion, aware of a very real outcome.
Sitting in Bars with Cake takes too much time building up an all-encompassing journey of human struggle when really, it’s better as a celebration of life’s joy. To lean on the latter when the former faces a point of no return would be admittedly disrespectful. But to completely toss out one early in one’s script, impossible to turn around when desired, that’s just disheartening. It is at times a heartbreaker, other times a life affirmer. It’s not a bad picture, at any level. But it was a headscratcher, nevertheless, left to guess how friends’ adventure and personal strife could coexist. I still say it’s possible if only the talent involved took a stab at reworking the recipe. Surely whatever cookbook emerges out of this production might be a more improved expression of Schulman’s misadventures. (C-; 2.5/5)
Sitting in Bars with Cake is currently streaming on Prime Video; rated PG-13 for strong language, some drug use, sexual references and thematic elements; 120 minutes.