‘Sitting in Bars With Cake’ Review: A Lumpy Friendship Tale With a Bittersweet Bite

Ten years ago, the screenwriter Audrey Shulman whipped up a wacky plan to land a boyfriend: She’d barhop using a homemade cake as bait. “The cake was magic because it made me a magnet,” Shulman blogged at the time. “Suddenly every boy within spitting distance was looking at me, silently forming an action plan on how to come over.” She adapted her blog into a book, and her book into a movie, “Sitting in Bars With Cake,” that, with a decade of perspective, shifts focus from her romances to her roommate, who was diagnosed with cancer midway through the dating experiment. What began as a singles guide is now an ode to platonic friendship, the kind of piano-tinkling weepie that makes you cry even when some of the ingredients don’t work.

Shulman and the director Trish Sie have added Gen Z flavor, rejiggering the story to star Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’zion as twentysomething best friends who chart a mission to bring dessert to every male demographic in Los Angeles. Using criss-crossing lines of red string, they target tech bros, cowboys and ironic hipsters across a pinned-up city map. Locals, however, will notice the production favors goofy real-life theme bars with a similar crowd — think tiki, burlesque, roller-rink drag shows, Clifton’s Cafeteria and the Redwood — that make LA’s nightlife look extra delightful at the expense of scrambling the girls’ supposed goal, which blurs from vague (meet different kinds of men?) to vaguer (or just be more social?).

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Jane (Shahidi) — as in plain — is a rarely-been-kissed mailroom clerk who wears oversized cardigans and ducks out of parties to go home alone and listen to NPR. “If it works for Mr. Rogers, it works for me,” she quips. Jane’s the most cartoonish example of that old “she’s gorgeous but doesn’t know it” trope that I’ve seen in a while, and even within the logic of the movie, Shahidi is lit and styled so adoringly that you can’t buy that her character is floundering for a date. (The first time she speaks more than two sentences to her crush, he makes a flagrant pass.) Nevertheless, early on we’re confounded by a truly absurd sequence of scenes where Jane, who minutes before had bored a crowd into visible rudeness with just one fact about popovers, is suddenly engulfed by a cheering throng chanting: “Cake! Cake! Cake!”

So it’s lucky that A’zion, as the cancer-stricken friend, pulls our attention away from that plotline until we practically forget the film claims to care about baked goods. Her character, Corrine, is bold and sparkly, the kind of showboat who leaps atop a bar to belt Wham! Where Jane feels thinly sketched in pastels, Corrine’s portrait has been detailed in bright permanent markers. A’zion roils with emotions and her character is funny, mercurial, reactive and real. “I should be learning some major life lesson right now, but I’m just annoyed and ready for this to be over,” she vents. When Corrine sobs, her entire face curls up in misery until we’re sobbing, too — and the same goes for her smiles. It’s a performance that makes you want to see A’zion in another complex lead role immediately to find out what other gears she’s got.

One senses that, even today, Shulman would prefer to cede the spotlight to her roommate. She’d rather gush about her vibrant friend than share much about her own onscreen counterpart, who is kind and devoted and that’s pretty much it. You can’t buy the pair as the childhood friends they’re written to be — surely personalities this opposite would have drifted apart by college. But you do believe in Corrine’s subplot as an aspiring music agent aching to impress her boss, played by Bette Midler, who stalks onscreen wearing black leather pants to remind fans of the genre that they’re overdue for a “Beaches” rewatch.

Other bright spots include Tracy Dishman’s production design (particularly a detail where the girls decorate their bathroom with Christmas lights and empty pill bottles) and supporting turns from Martha Kelly and Ron Livingston and as Corrine’s shellshocked parents. Kelly makes great use of the comic monotone that stole a scene from Adam Driver in “Marriage Story,” while Livingston, playing a car mechanic, restlessly roams the corners of the film, fixing everything that his character can fix in order to feel less helpless about his daughter’s disease. As a cherry on top, the film punctuates each new trip to the bar with clever cake-themed interstitials featuring increasingly eyebrow-raising concoctions. Chinese Prune cake? Holiday Kale? Thank you, but I’ll pass — the film itself is just at my limit of saccharine.

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