Another cinematic reminder that adventure and exotic locales aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be, Jeff Baena’s Spin Me Round finds frequent collaborator Alison Brie playing a quiet American whose trip to Italy goes weirdly awry. Amusing but the most lightweight of the five diverse features he’s made so far, it finds other members of the Baena gang (Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon) fleshing out an eccentric ensemble, many playing characters as unpredictable as Brie’s is straight-laced. New to the club is Alessandro Nivola, who in a rare comedic turn helps the movie maintain a low-key “where is this going?” pull. Under the Tuscan Sun it ain’t, however much its protagonists hope for the most familiar kind of rom-com exoticism.
Brie plays Amber, who manages the Bakersfield location of Tuscan Grove — an Olive Garden-style eatery where all-you-can-eat portions drown out any complaints about quality or authenticity. (Just try ordering fettuccine Alfredo after seeing the vacuum-packed gloop they squirt on noodles here.) Amber’s drab routine is interrupted when she learns she was chosen for an enrichment program that sends top managers to soak up the culture of central Italy, staying in a company-owned villa and learning the cuisine’s finer points from master chefs.
Spin Me Round
A slight but enjoyable sendup of vacation-romance clichés.
Well, not quite. Upon arrival (and after surrendering their passports to a guide?), Amber and other attendees get stuck in a dumpy hotel adjacent to that villa, then learn that they can’t explore the countryside unless it’s on an official tour. Those won’t be forthcoming. Instead, the half-dozen or so managers spend their days in a dull conference room watching even duller food demos. (Given that some in the class don’t know what al dente means, anything more interesting might be wasted on them.) It looks like the biggest challenges Amber will face are the sudden intimacies foisted on her by the unlucky Deb (Shannon) and the fanboy gushing of Zach Woods’ Dana, who knows every bit of Tuscan Grove corporate lore. (Surely this role was written for Woods, who made a similar character an essential ingredient of Silicon Valley.)
Then the group gets an unexpected visit from Nivola’s Nick, head of the Tuscan Grove empire. After some perfunctory greetings, he whispers to his assistant Kat (Plaza) that this Amber woman is a dead ringer for a woman from his past. Soon Kat is sneaking Amber away from the group, driving her to Nick’s yacht for the kind of sun-dappled romantic day her roommate Emily (Ego Nwodim) promised she’d find on this trip.
But viewers will see things a bit more clearly than Amber does, and even before Nick takes her to a party with Eyes Wide Shut vibes, they may suspect Nick and Kat are basically a much better-looking version of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Suffice to say that said viewers would only be a tiny bit wrong, and that Amber will spend most of the rest of the picture working her way toward the truth.
In between the gaslighting and mildly violent slapstick that moves the mystery along, Baena finds time to let supporting players like Tim Heidecker, Ayden Mayeri and Lauren Weedman score small but memorable laughs. Despite some initial indications to the contrary, Baena regulars Plaza (the director’s wife) and Brie don’t have as much room to stretch as they have in his previous films; but then, neither actor is hurting for opportunities to shine in other big- and small-screen projects.
Nivola is best served by this film, revealing a subtly quirky side and making one wish the script (penned by Baena and Brie) had further developed the dynamics between Nick, Amber and Kat. But anything approaching serious psychological drama or sexual intrigue could easily have thrown this film off its footing, leaving us with little but gorgeous landscapes and empty carbs.