Jeff Baena directs "Spin Me Round," a new genre mash-up that ends up being one of the most perplexing movies I've seen this year. Not because of a deep and knotty story. Not due to some heavy thought-provoking themes. And certainly not from layered and challenging characters. No, it's because I'm still trying to figure out how a movie that started so strong ended up such a mess.
It's not so much recognizing what went wrong. The issues with "Spin Me Round" aren't hard to spot. The puzzling part is trying to understand some of the creative choices that takes what started as sharp and genuinely funny comedy and turns it into this weird melange of clashing undeveloped ideas. It results in a schizophrenic final third that sees the movie trying to be an erotic thriller, a revealing #MeToo drama, a buddy mystery, an absurdist parody, and several other things. But despite its go-for-broke efforts, it all comes across as little more than manufactured chaos.
It's a shame because "Spin Me Round" has a cast rich with comedic talent: Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Alessandro Nivola, Tim Heidecker, Lil Rel Howery, Zach Woods, Debby Ryan, and Fred Armisen for starters. And the story (penned by Baena and Brie) sets off on the right foot, riffing on a basic romantic comedy premise while smartly leaning on the names above to deliver some good laughs.
But something happens just past the halfway mark that makes for an intriguing shift in tone. And for a while Baena does a good job balancing the comedy with this new subtly smarmy under-your-skin thriller vibe. But things turn on a dime and go sideways fast as more twists are introduced and more genres are crammed in. It ends up messy and convoluted to the point that the entire story comes unglued. Call it a miscalculation or over-ambition. Whatever the reason, the movie derails and never has time to get back on track.
Brie stars as Amber, a late 30-something living a mundane life in Bakersfield, Calif. She's fresh off a messy breakup and about the only thing close to excitement in her life is working as manager of the local Tuscan Grove, an Olive Garden-ish Italian restaurant chain. Amber is surprised one day by some news that could spice things up. Her boss (Howery) informs her that she has been selected for the Tuscan Grove Institute Exemplary Manager's Program. It's an all-expense-paid corporate getaway to Italy where she'll stay at a luxury villa and take part in several haute culinary classes taught by master chefs. And who knows, maybe she'll get a glimpse of the company's charismatic CEO, Nick Martucci (Nivola).
It doesn't take long for Amber (who has never been out of the States) to get caught up in the romanticism. She sees herself being swept away by the beautiful locales, eating the best Italian cuisine, getting lost in the local culture, and maybe even falling in love. But her first dose of reality comes pretty quickly. After being picked up at the airport by the slyly sardonic program supervisor, Craig (a really funny Ben Sinclair), Amber is driven, not to a beautiful countryside villa, but a rinky-dink hotel. It's the first of several signs indicating this company retreat isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The funniest bits come when we're introduced to the other managers -- an eccentric blend of pinheads and oddballs who immediately make us question the "Exemplary" part of the program. Among them is the neurotic Deb (a scene-stealing Shannon), the awkward oversharer Dana (Woods), the detached and uninterested Susie (Ryan), and Fran (Heidecker) who wears his brief stint on "Chef's Challenge" as a badge of honor. Each deliver some laugh-out-loud moments with Amber often in the straight-man role.
But things shift after Nick appears and whisks Amber away for a romantic afternoon on his yacht. With practically no buildup whatsoever, she gives into her Cinderella-styled fantasy, succumbing to Nick's big smile and paper-thin charm. And then there's the acerbic and mysterious Kat (played by Baena's real-life wife, Plaza) who one minute is shuttling Amber to her secret rendezvous with Nick and is warning her to watch out for him the next.
Kat could be the film's most compelling character, but she's undone by the script's lack of interest in her. Kat teases more than she delivers, leaving us with no way to gauge her or her motives. Is she complicit in some queasy dealings or is she guided by some darker self-interests? We eventually get a vague one-word answer, but well after she up and disappears. Despite being framed as a meaningful character, the writers send Kat packing without making sense of anything she has brought to the story. It's such a waste of Plaza's talent.
Sadly there's a lot wasted here -- the funny anti-romcom first act, the gorgeous scenic stops along the Italian Riviera, the opportunity to go deeper into the weighty themes it introduces. Instead the filmmakers choose to run riot, spinning off in all directions before settling into a poor man's "Eyes Wide Shut." Baena clearly wants to jolt us, both with the shock and the silliness of what's revealed. But it's easy to lose yourself and your movie when taking such wild swings. Case in point -- "Spin Me Round."