Sitting in Bars with Cake blindsided me in the first act as the story, initially thought to be a superficial one about young women in iconic Hollywood locations attempting to meet men, becomes a deeply meaningful and poignant tale about friendship and life. Inspired by author and screenwriter Audrey Shulman’s life, Cake delivers layers of heart and humor drizzled with just the right level of sweetness that leaves you completely satisfied as the final credits roll.
Shulman’s story begins back in 2016 as Jane (Yara Shahidi) and Corinne (Odessa A’zion) decadently celebrate poolside at the TCL Chinese Theater. Corinne is the life of the party while Jane finds a way to unintentionally be a buzz-kill as she dives deeply into the difference between a muffin and a popover. The girls, best friends since elementary school, work together at a music production company lead by none other than the infamous artist Benita (Bette Midler), but their jobs differ vastly. Corrine aspires to be the next junior agent, but is currently a lackey for Benita, and Jane delivers mail, shyly and discretely, as she dupes her parents into thinking she is studying for the LSAT, following in their legal footsteps.
Corrine loves to party, living the twenty-something life in Hollywood and longs to help Jane break out of her shell. Observing the reaction of fellow merrymakers devour her birthday cake at The Elbow Room, Corrine hatches a plan to have Jane bake a cake one time per week — taking off for Thanksgiving and Christmas later that year — and meet men at bars as she slices and allows them to partake in her wondrous culinary skills.
Their plan quickly takes a detour as Corrine’s recurrent headaches result in a seizure, symptomatic of something far more serious than a Tylenol can cure. And this is where the magic of the film begins. While we already know that Jane and Corrine are life-long friends, their connection intensifies as Jane helps Corrine navigate her illness and treatments. As Corrine states, “Jane is meant for this job,” justifying to her parents that it’s ok to go home and allow Corrine to continue to live her life as she wants, including their weekly cake-meet-men goal.
Transitioning the story from light and fluffy to something much more meaningful while maintaining humor takes a skilled writer. And with this skill from Shulman, we actually have several stories going on at once; all blending together perfectly to whip up a more complex story. Shulman lays the foundation, but quickly finds a way to create a way to give Jane her own story while Corrine dives head first into hers. The character of Corrine is written delicately yet boldly with A’zion perfectly executing her nuanced performance. She allows us to see Corrine thriving as the carefree center of attention and quickly grow up as she looks at her dilemma and life differently. Yet, somehow, A’zion brings bits of levity which reminds us of who she is at her core. With this, we are connected to Corrine and see the troubled mind behind the quips and laughs. A’zion allows herself to become this messy yet strong character who must face the hurdles that loom ahead like Mount Kilimanjaro, daring, even taunting her to climb the peak.
Shahidi’s Jane balances A’zion’s Corrine as sublimely as the chocolate chili or spiced rum cake she serves. She finds strength in her character as the roller coaster of life whisks her into unknown territory. And we watch her grow; it’s a lovely character arc that is never artificial or contrived, but a result of life’s difficult and unfair obstacles. Together, Shahidi and A’zion masterfully re-create a touching and heartfelt time in the writer’s own Shulman’s life.
While the dramatic elements override the story, the humor is never far away thanks to the team effort of Shulman and her actors, particularly A’Zion and Midler who has a small yet important role in the story. Unexpectedly, Corrine’s parents portrayed by Ron Livingston as Fred and Martha Kelly as Ruth, give us moments of laughter dipped in rich layers of love. Fred is a fix-it kind of guy. His entrance into the story is one of handyman who can and needs to control things and fix them. His wife, Ruth, a very measured and prepared woman, seems to carry every item he might need from a screwdriver or plumber’s tape to WD-40 in her purse. It’s like a magic handbag or perhaps she’s ready to go on “Let’s Make a Deal.” And with this, we chuckle, yet we are drawn to the obvious analogy relayed unnecessarily but in a heartfelt manner, that no matter how prepared we are and how much we try to fix things, some things are out of our control. It’s a brutal and emotional realization that elicits a lump in your throat as tears involuntarily stream down your cheeks because each and every character is a relatable and realistic one.
Cake is a total surprise with its evocative storyline with a humor-filled center as two friends navigate life and more importantly, live it.