Film Review – Sitting in Bars with Cake
Sitting in Bars with Cake
The title of Sitting in Bars with Cake (2023) is a little bit of a misnomer. Yes, it does in fact feature people sitting in bars eating cake. The film is an adaptation of the book by writer Audrey Shulman (who also wrote the screenplay), which detailed a year of her life where she brought homemade cakes into bars hoping to attract a potential boyfriend. What we get on screen certainly starts out that way, but things quickly change direction. The upbeat, playful tone of the first act shifts into a more serious, heartfelt story about friendship in the midst of a life-altering diagnosis. Those walking into this looking for a fun buddy comedy are going to get a big surprise. Whether or not that surprise works will be up to the viewer.
The thought of strangers serving cake to people in bars is a little bewildering. I was young once, and frequented plenty of bars and clubs in my day. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but eating any kind of food – whether it’s cake, alcohol, etc. – from someone other than a server or bartender is a huge risk. But alas, that apparently really did happen in Los Angeles – yet another weird quirk in a town full of weird quirks. That’s where our protagonists Jane (Yara Shahidi) and Corinne (Odessa A’zion) live and work. Both are employed at the legendary Capitol Records building – Jane as a mail clerk and Corinne as an assistant to Bette Midler’s big time exec. In hopes of breaking Jane out of her introverted ways and spicing up her social life, Corinne encourages her to go “cakebarring.”
Some of the most entertaining sequences involve Jane and Corinne’s odyssey into the L.A. nightlife. Director Trish Sie structure the scenes with colorful energy, as the production design and art direction give each location its own unique vibe. If there’s anything to say about the City of Angels, it’s that there’s something for everyone. The editing (Lauren Connelly) utilizes montage to help give us a sample of each place. Drag bars, country clubs, swanky restaurants, pretentious and overly priced establishments, etc. The camera captures people surrounding Jane, Corinne, and their friends to try a taste of their cake. As the writing describes, the best way to attract others is with sweets. Admittedly, the cakes themselves (designed by chef Megan Potthoff) look gorgeous, and serve as the perfect ice breaker for anyone who happens to walk by.
If the narrative was simply about Jane’s love of baking and how it’s used to break her out of her shell, then that would be more than enough. However, things take a drastic turn when – and this is not a spoiler – Corinne gets diagnosed with a brain tumor. The fun and excitement of cakebarring is now juxtaposed with the reality of medical appointments, surgeries, chemotherapy, and the question of Corinne’s survival. Her parents (Ron Livingston, Martha Kelly) show up, working with Jane to figure out how they will support Corinne through this ordeal. As we learn in the credits, this turn of events was also inspired by Shulman’s real life. Jane and Corinne’s relationship develop into a partnership. Where Corinne helped open Jane to new experiences and people, Jane is a spiritual pillar as a day to day caregiver for Corinne.
While Corinne’s diagnosis is a reflection of what really happened with Audrey Shulman and her close friend, this tangent throws a wrench into the whole narrative. The notion of cancer is such a heavy topic that it takes away from the “cakebarring.” We don’t get a sense of why Jane loves baking so much, or why Corinne is so gung ho on bringing cakes to various bars. The whole cake thing becomes an afterthought, which make sense. Jane is less interested in meeting a guy than she is taking care of her friend. Even when Owen (Rish Shah) – a guy she works with – poses as a potential romantic interest, it’s only of minor concern. The plot down shifts into a familiar tale of characters navigating life while dealing with a terrible illness. The danger of this premise is that it involves characters learning how to live through the deterioration of loved ones. As much as the production tries to avoid this trap, I couldn’t help but sense things drifting into that arena. Does Jane learn more about herself through cakebarring, or through Corinne’s cancer? The answer is fuzzy.
I’m sure everyone involved had their hearts in the right place, and for the most part Sitting in Bars with Cakedoes have a strong emotional center with Jane and Corinne’s relationship. But the balance between them having fun and shouldering such a heavy situation feels awkward. The motivations behind their cake adventure is skimmed over, and the circumstances of Corinne’s illness is overly familiar in terms of storytelling. Thankfully, Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’zion are very good in their respective roles. They nearly have us forget that Corinne’s cancer is used as a plot point, instead focusing on how their different personalities compliment one another. Does the execution get a little heavy handed? Sure it does. There are plenty of instances where the sentimentality goes into overdrive – such as when the sound design dials down the volume when something tragic happens, or when a small karaoke scene has the weight and functionality of a significant personal victory. But still, the performances are strong enough to help us look past these examples.
The initial idea of Sitting in Bars with Cake is so fascinating and unique that when the narrative makes its inevitable turn, I was slightly disappointed. Instead of exploring cakebarring to its fullest extent, we’re taken on a melodrama that feels all too familiar. I’m sure many will see the tonal shift and go along for the ride. The problem is that we’ve seen that story play out so often. This is certainly not to take away from Shulman’s real life experience. It’s that we have two competing narrative threads, one that feels fresh and interesting and another that is somber. The two sides never mix as well as they should have. The film does have its qualities, and for that I’m giving a recommendation. I just have this nagging suspicion that there is a deeper, more insightful movie hidden here.