It’s right there in the trailer: Cake and cancer. What’s less obvious in the same trailer for the new Amazon Prime Video special “Sitting in Bars with Cake,” premiering Sept. 8, is the remarkable effectiveness and genuine emotion found in Audrey Shulman’s adaptation of her 2015 book, based on her own blog. With the intention of meeting men in Los Angeles, she continued on her way by “baking” for a full year.
Meanwhile, Shulman’s best friend was diagnosed with devastating health, but at her insistence, Shulman continued with his project. A freely invented variation on this premise, “Sitting in Bars with Cake” creates a story that’s radically fresh for anyone, from ingredients that won’t overwhelm the transcendental formula, and cleverly centered on a touching tale of friendship brought to life. By Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’zion.
An online author’s biography describes Shulman as “an enthusiastic baker and a relentless stewardess.” The film’s heroine is different: an ambitious baker, yes, but Shahidi’s character, Jane, starts out as a socially anxious, close-knit woman in her early 20s trying to live up to her parents’ expectations for greatness. Longtime friend and transfer mate from Phoenix to Los Angeles, Corinne is nothing like Jane; He’s a wise and cheerful extrovert played by A’zion, best known for the Netflix series “Grand Army” and the recent reboot “Hellraiser.”
Corinne and Jane work at Capitol Records; Jane as a postal clerk with vague plans for a legal career; Corinne, on the other hand, works as an entrepreneurial music manager in education. (Bette Midler, always a delight, plays her domineering but warm-hearted boss.) For Jane, cooking is her anti-stress self-medication of choice. One night, carrying a beautiful cake for Corinne’s birthday, Jane impresses a bar full of semi-entitled people with her baking skills.
So why not get busy with that? Why not “bait men with sugar?” With Corinne’s prodding, Jane embarks on a year-long experiment, carefully mapping Tiki bars, biker bars, country and Western bars, geek hangouts in Silver Lake, and everything Los Angeles has to offer for men.
Shulman, now a screenwriter, is a good screenwriter: He’s witty and often funny, and he knows how to switch gears without too much difficulty. “Sitting in Bars with Cake” director Trish Sie (“Step Up All In,” “Pitch Perfect 3″) is no stranger to commercial engineering, but her work here leaves room for a comfortable interplay of multiple tones. The film begins after Corinne is diagnosed with cancer. even unfolds as a series of shameless Los Angeles tourism campaign scenes, from the first establishing shot of the pool area of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, to a crowd scene next to the cabanas, to a scene set in Miceli’s restaurant off Hollywood Boulevard. Normally it’s this slick, it’s this cold It was enough to stop a movie, it’s different and better.
Stars and key supporting ringtones sound extremely easy. Shahidi (a teenager who is both “Black” and “Grown”) avoids turning Jane into a type or just an introvert-turned-butterfly stereotype. Her vibe is laid-back and intuitive enough to sell whatever Shulman has in store for her weekly, cake-by-cake preparation. Ditto A’zion. Los Angeles, like all confusing big cities, is full of odd-couple roommates, whether old friends or new coincidences of fate, and there’s enough going on between them even though “Sitting in Bars with Cake” goes in a clearly defined direction .the plot points to giving the sense that something real is at stake between these women.
Corinne’s parents, the salt of the world but a little different at best, tell Ron, “Mr. Reliable” Livingston and Martha Kelly (the vacant field visit evaluator in “Marriage Story”) are a great double role. The film tells the story of “a year spent in hospitals and bars” and this is conveyed through verbal dialogue. While Jane devotes all her time and love to Corinne, screenwriter Shulman has the grace to clearly show Corinne a range of complex reactions as doctors monitor her brain tumor and its effects.
At one point, in an unprotected moment with his friend, confidant, and brave baker, he says, “I have to learn an important life lesson right now.” “But I was just angry.” The scenes between A’zion and Shahidi are not the icing on this cake. They are cake.
“Sitting in Bars with Cake” — 3 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong language, some drug use, sexual references and thematic elements)
Running time: 1:59
How to watch: Premieres September 8 on Prime Video
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.