It’s a tale as old as time: a seemingly regular gal is unexpectedly swept away to an idyllic European locale, where she indulges in food, fun, and the affection of a tasty new companion, a delight for the senses that reinforces just how undesirable her current life is. When Amber (Alison Brie), the manager of a Bakersfield location of Tuscan Grove — essentially an Olive Garden knock-off, all forced familial cheer and industrial-sized bags of Alfredo sauce — gets picked for just such a trip in Jeff Baena’s off-kilter fish-out-of-water comedy “Spin Me Round,” what’s to come is expected. And while Baena and Brie, who wrote the film together, don’t exactly flip the script on this seemingly well-trod subgenre, the duo (plus a star-packed cast) certainly add some spice to it.
Spice is not something Amber is used to, and while she never says she’s bored with her life, she still jumps at the chance for an all-expenses-paid trip to her employer’s Italian-set “institute,” a treat for her near-decade-long service to the smash hit fast casual joint dreamed up by the sexy Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola). While Amber has been promised a luxe vacation, the Tuscan Grove Institute (TGI) leaves plenty to be desired, mostly consisting of an anonymous hotel and a truly depressing conference center. Nick’s villa is within eyesight, but the group of all-star managers (including a murderer’s row of comedic talent, including Molly Shannon, Zach Woods, Tim Heidecker, and Debby Ryan) picked for the retreat is never invited there. At night, the only entertainment is the screeching trains that whiz by and, if they’re really lucky, a tipple at the hotel’s sorry excuse for a bar.
But once Nick appears on the scene, plus his sarcastic and unnervingly observant assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza), things take a turn. Soon, Amber’s dreams of a life-changing trip don’t seem so far out of reach. Or are they?
Plaza and Brie are both Baena regulars — the duo have appeared in “Joshy,” “The Little Hours,” and “Horse Girl” together, while Plaza recently married her long-time partner and Brie has penned the last two films alongside the filmmaker — and its their obvious affection for the particular wavelength of Baena’s films that helps this all go down a bit easier. While Amber is initially swept up by whatever the hell Nick is throwing down, the vibe is wrong, and it’s obvious that Baena and Brie have plenty more up their sleeves beyond a sunny romance and an assemblage of wacky side characters. Really, have you ever seen a Jeff Baena film? Five films in to this directing thing, he’s not suddenly going to veer into easily digestible offerings, though “Spin Me Round” offers enough wacky diversions to appeal to anyone looking for a chuckle.
To that end, the film is miles more accessible than Baena and Brie’s first co-written outing — the inscrutable 2020 feature “Horse Girl,” which did at least make plain how damn good Brie and Shannon are when paired up in wacky situations — and shows a growing ease in their partnership. Mostly, these two (plus the always wonderful Plaza) know funny, and the film is rife with individually amusing scenes and characters that lift it when its energy is otherwise flailing. Everything that Woods does is hilarious, Ryan is an unexpected MVP in her limited scenes, and there’s one sequence involving Fred Armisen mouthing the words to “Lady in Red” that is, as the old adage goes, worth the price of admission.
And yet so much of “Spin Me Round” doesn’t quite fit together, which may well be the point. As situations start to spiral out of her control, Amber’s trip becomes less about having fun and drinking lots of wine (though one sequence that hinges on Brie and Plaza doing just that is a highlight of the film). Her “romance” with Nick is off-kilter; there’s surely something sick simmering just under the surface. When she meets them, Nick’s friends are quick to point out two things about Amber: how very much she looks like Connie (and, no, we will not spoil who Connie is, though Baena and Brie’s script lays out plenty of hints early on, even though it ultimately leaves things just a touch open-ended) and how “open-minded!!” she seems.
Amber may be somewhat unsophisticated, but she’s not stupid. Alone with her thoughts and eager to make sense of the weirdness around her, Amber cooks up some majorly out-there ideas about what’s really going on, and while that’s not as funny as it could be, the undercurrent of dramatic self-discovery that runs through “Spin Me Round” is classic Baena, and one that works in fits and starts.
While the film was made on location in Italy, audiences will have to squint to get a glimpse at the lush countryside, and the inherent claustrophobia that comes with her situation presses in on all sides. Baena, Brie, and Plaza don’t sacrifice the laughs in service to that feeling, but anyone looking for a wacky good time will come away from the film with something else. Just like Amber!
“Spin Me Round“ premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.