One of my favorite little sub-genres of film has to be: ‘Italy! Let’s go there and have stuff happen!’ Pop it right up there next to neo-noir, heist films, and ‘Richard Linklater characters talk for an hour and forty minutes’. Italy’s just a damn cinematic country. It’s beautiful, and it looks great on camera (especially if you’re shooting it with a certain level of flair and skill—even though that example is technically more ‘Let’s be in Italy’, but you get my point). So for me, a base level of interest is already generated simply by just setting a story there. You don’t even have to do all that much with it, and I’ll probably be invested enough to at least get through it—even though the sub-genre has been tainted by a lot of lazy trash.
Spin Me Round, the new film from director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, Horse Girl), is not lazy trash. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination either. But it’s fine. Really, just…fine. I wasn’t angry that I’d seen it—in fact, I had a decently good time, chuckling at a few moments and enjoying well enough the (admittedly low stakes) suspense woven into what you’re supposed to assume will be a romcom—but I’d be lying if I said I thought I’d remember much at all about it within a week or two. Put it this way: If you’ve had a long day at work and need something that isn’t too long, and won’t tax or burden your brain much while making you laugh a bunch of times, you might find some value here.
Spin Me Round reunites Baena with his Horse Girl lead, Alison Brie, who does decent work here with a script that doesn’t exactly give her much substance to chew on. Brie plays Amber, the manager of an Olive Garden-style mass market Italian restaurant who wins a trip to Italy organized by her company for its high-performing managers. The trip is billed as a unique opportunity for employees to tap into the authentic Italian ‘magic’ of the family at the heart of their brand—and to potentially meet its charismatic CEO, Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola, also doing fine work with insubstantial material). There’s a moment before Amber sets off to Italy during which her best friend and roommate Emily (Ego Nwodim) flat out says to her with excitement: ‘Oh my god you’re gonna fall in love!’ This sledgehammer-subtle bit of scene-setting and misdirection sets up the film’s core conflict, as once in Italy Amber realises that her trip will not likely pan out the way she was imagining—and that there might be more going on with the charming Nick than first meets the eye, which becomes especially apparent once his beguiling assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza) enters the picture.
If this film didn’t exactly set my world on fire, I at least have to give it credit for not wasting my time. Coming in at a politely lean 104 minutes, the setup is quick and efficient—almost ruthlessy so in some ways actually, as Amber is not the most developed character in the world—and the story chugs along at a clip that respects the audience more than the ludicrous bloat found in some modern movies which have the audacity to run for three hours without ever demonstrating why exactly it is they think they might need that much of my time (ahem, The Batman). It sags a bit in the latter part of its mid-section, but overall it doesn’t outstay its welcome as a light comedy. Searching for a comparison, I looked up the running time of dunderheaded thriller Spiderhead, and to my shock saw that that was only two minutes longer than Spin Me Round! Two minutes! Madness. From my memory, it felt like it went on for about half an hour longer.
Amber isn’t alone in being underdeveloped in Spin Me Round. Most of the characters in the film are wafer-thin, with barely justified motivations and minimally explored inner lives serving as the canvas on which—thanks to the good work done by a talented cast (including Molly Shannon, Zach Woods, and Tim Heidecker)—some occasionally funny ensemble comedy moments are built. The characters here do feel more real than two dimensional cartoons or lifeless script delivery devices, but not by a huge lot. They’re all fun to watch—especially Plaza and Heidecker—but you can’t help but wish things had been beefed up a little bit more, both in terms of the human elements and the sharpness of the plotting and humor. In its early moments, the plot mechanics and suspense elements intrigue just enough to invest the film’s light (but quite effective) attempts at corporate retreat satire with a bit of fun menace and shades of implied darkness. Later, this dissolves in dramatically underwhelming fashion, the film’s third act messily rushing towards a conclusion. Throughout, the camera work, editing, and sound design are unremarkable, but competent (though granted this is not the kind of film in which any usually shine).
And I guess that’s a fine enough summary of a fine enough film. ‘Unremarkable, but competent.’ So ‘Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza Go to Italy and Do Stuff’ might sound like an aggressively bland title for a film review, but it is very much apt in this case. Although I will say two things that are to the movie’s credit: It understands how weird and offputting rich people can be, and it appreciates the inherent and inescapable ickiness of Chris de Burgh. Oh, and that Tim Heidecker delivering the line ‘How’s Italy dangerous, Craig?’ can be genuinely hilarious.