Just when it seems every production under the sun (“The White Lotus,” “House of Gucci”) seems to be jetting off to Italy, “Spin Me Round” writer-director Jeff Baena looked for another angle: to dismantle the fantasy facade of the romanticized nation, and then, well, spin it. Baena’s “Spin Me Round,” which he co-wrote with lead star and frequent collaborator Alison Brie is part coming-of-age story and part slap in the face of the “expectation versus reality” memes, all wrapped up in a #MeToo mystery.
In the film, which debuted at SXSW in March and is being released this week, Brie plays Amber, a manager at fast food restaurant Tuscan Grove, an Olive Garden insert, who wins a corporate retreat to Italy. While her fellow top-earning managers (played by Molly Shannon, Zach Woods, Tim Heidecker, and Debby Ryan) are also attending the company seminars, Amber only has eyes for franchise founder Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola).
Yet Nick’s assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza) seems to be letting Amber in on a secret about Nick: Just like the alfredo sauce Tuscan Grove is slinging, Nick’s charm is just a cheap knock-off for the real thing.
“After I shot ‘The Little Hours,’ I saw this article in a newspaper about this program that an Italian franchise had where they would send the top managers to Italy to learn about food, wine, and culture, and this one manager just had this terrible experience because there was no organization,” Baena told IndieWire during a recent interview. “The expectation was that they would be staying in a villa, but they ended up staying in this run-down dormitory. They did a demonstration about a bolognese and that was about it. I think the expectation of going to Italy and having this life-changing experience was ultimately subverted with having this shotty experience, so I thought that was a fun concept and ran with that.”
Mostly, Baena wanted “Spin Me Round” to peel back lots of illusions, both the real-life kind and those we see in movies. “Aesthetically, one of the things I tried to do was look at certain movies I’ve always been drawn to, styles of Italian filmmaking,” the “I Heart Huckabees” writer said. “There are certain movies like ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ and ‘Eat Pray Love,’ those are movies that the characters think they’re going to find themselves in, and ultimately they find themselves in more of a giallo.”
Baena called on “Horse Girl” co-writer Brie back in 2016 after he drafted a 15-page outline. Brie shared her personal experiences with less-than-ideal suitors, and that outline quickly became a full-blown script, aided by the production slow down during the early months of COVID-19 in 2020. But the film itself is “intentionally set in 2017,” with subtle details to link it back to the rise of the #MeToo movement via the year’s news being shown on FaceTimes and text messages.
“I thought that was important, but I didn’t want to hit people over the head with it,” Baena said. “But that was definitely an intention in terms of its construction. To me, I hate exposition, so I like little, subtle things like that. I didn’t want to make it like, ‘Hey, check this out!’ Maybe someone picks it up and maybe they don’t.”
Brie added that the #MeToo elements and corporate coercion conspiracy plotline were directly linked to past personal situations with men. “It was just sort of exploring that power dynamic and the moments in my life where I’ve felt uncomfortable but couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was uncomfortable, so then I felt like it wasn’t really my place to speak up in the moment,” Brie told IndieWire. “It wasn’t until analyzing it later that I realized the position I was put in.”
Talking through those situations with Baeana helped, too. “There’s nuance to those scenes, because a lot of them are based on stories that I’ve told Jeff about weird experiences with men that honestly have shifted in my own perspective even over the last few years,” Brie said. “I’ll be like, ‘Listen to this funny story that I’ve been telling for a long time’ and then sort of going like, ‘I guess this is sort of a traumatic story. I guess this wasn’t so cool that time I went out with that guy who had been my teacher.'”
Brie’s character Amber is “really passive” when it comes to relationships, even friendships. “She really embodies some characteristics I can see in myself from my twenties, even though she’s like a little old to be still so naive,” Brie said. “She’s almost too go-with-the-flow. She does let herself be taken on this ride in this movie. So many people are putting their expectations for this trip, for her life, on her and you get the sense that she’s sort of lived her whole life never asserting herself and never making a life plan, sort of feeling like she doesn’t deserve that.”
And so, Amber ignores the “red flags” from boss Nick (and the constant praise from Nick’s elite pals for how “open-minded” she is) because she wants to live in the fantasy of an Italian getaway. Brie said, “I feel like it was less about a conscious agenda of telling a #MeToo story and more about the honest specificity of just personal experience. It’s this self-empowerment journey for my character.”
But while the darker stories that fed “Spin Me Round” are very real indeed, there’s at least one element that’s a bit of a put-on: the cuisine. “I honestly don’t eat fast food,” Baena said, sans the occasional trip to In-n-Out. “I’ve never actually been to Olive Garden.”
IFC Films releases “Spin Me Round” in theaters, on VOD, and streaming on AMC+ on Friday, August 19.