Spin Me Round, directed by Jeff Baena, screened at SXSW 2022. The comedy feature suggests stereotypical romantic fantasies about Tuscany, Italy. The film layers these with scary nightmare tropes about being kidnapped for ransom. In this story, though, if one doesn’t have money and hails from Nowhere USA, the greatest likelihood is that neither will happen. Baena and Alison Brie, who wrote the comedy feature and premiered it at SXSW, combine the wacky and the frightening. They also overlay the Italians’ disdainful view of American taste and style.
Ideas of Romance and Abduction Converge
The movie mines surreal worlds of romance and abduction, subverting genres. However, the writers don’t quite pull off the tone of a satire. Instead, they veer off into suspense – with a final build-up to hilarity. The suspenseful elements sometimes submerge the comedy and irony. The film’s success lies in the ironic perspective the writers have on American viewpoints. They amply satirize Americans’ lack of cultural flexibility and their gullibility. Though the object lessons become clear by the conclusion, the writers explore these themes with subtlety.
Tantalizing us with Hollywoodish plot twist upon plot twist, the film keeps us engaged. Then it gives us a smackdown for the finale. Ultimately, our expectations of horror fizzle. The laugh is on us.
Shepherded by Baena, the actors deliver fine performances. The notable, likable cast includes Molly Shannon supplying the wacky notes and adorable Alessandro Nivollo the sexy and romantic ones. Because of their efforts and the acting talent of Aubrey Plaza, Zach Woods, Ben Sinclair and others, Spin Me Round delivers the goods.
The premise plays off audience members who are like Amber (Alison Brie). Working nine years for Tuscan Grove (think Olive Garden), she supports the notion of low-quality, fast-food Italian fare. The food chain franchise is the antithesis of sumptuous Italian foodie place like Manhattan’s Babbo, Del Posto or even Becco.
Amber, the sweet, wide-eyed innocent, appears open to any experience that would take her away from US shores. She is thus the perfect patsy. An experienced manager of the Tuscan Grove in Bakersfield, California, she immerses herself in her job. When she’s honored by the Italian upper management with an all-expenses paid trip to their home base in Tuscany to receive leadership courses, she jumps at the fantastic opportunity.
Alluring TikTok Images of Tuscan Hill Towns with Narrow Streets
With the promise of a stay in an Italian villa, TikTok images of Tuscan hill towns with narrow, cobblestone streets, flower-filled balconies and quaint lighting come to mind. Never having traveled to Europe, Alison’s psyched emotions fly her there. When she arrives, the Grand Canyon-sized gaps between expectation and reality deflate her emotions. She’s pushed into a Tuscan Grove version of Italy.
First, the driver speaks Italian to them. That’s great, though none of her colleagues who’ve also been selected apparently brushed up on any Italian to understand him. The irony exemplifies the film’s humor. Why would those working at Tuscan Grove learn Italian? The mechanized, industrial food chain is really an Italian rip-off representing “America First,” not Italy.
A Hostage Situation?
When the driver breaks into English, they sigh with relief. The scene suggests how Europeans view Americans: as people who avoid anything outside their American comfort zone. Next, the driver stokes their fears by asking for their passports, which they obediently give him. Interestingly, he gives no explanation why, only that he will return them by the end of their stay. This suggests a hostage situation. How can they escape?
Arriving at the accommodations, Alison experiences another smackdown. Does she witness a gloriously charming villa like those in the novel Under the Tuscan Sun? Nope! Their residence resembles a pre-fabricated Motel 6 along Route 84 in upstate New York. The joke’s on them. Alison’s hotel room places her back in the good old USA. What must the CEO of Tuscan Grove really think of those they plan to “educate?”
An Assortment of Classmates
Her classmates hail from Tuscan Grove restaurants across the country. The humorous collection of odd managers includes the aggressive, obstreperous Deb. Molly Shannon’s pushy character steals every scene. Also along for the ride to banality is the loyal and easily frightened Tuscan Grove diehard Dana (Zach Woods). Dana initiates a friendship with Alison that comforts her when she most needs it.
Rounding off the group of honored managers who agreed to the weird trip, there are two other attractive young women who sit quietly, and an anomaly: a former cooking-show contestant with an oversized ego. He stands in for the blowhard in every class, who can’t be taught anything because he knows it all. Alison settles in with the others to a series of useless, top-down culinary lessons. Tragically, they watch and do not practice their cooking skills.
Kidnapped into Mediocrity
The story continues with situational deflations which shunt Alison back into an Italian’s perception of what Americans prefer: the tasteless, the unbeautiful, the sterile. The managers feared abduction? Indeed, kidnapped into mediocrity and boredom, inside her soul Alison screams to be free. However, not to underestimate the writing team of Baena and Brie, the undercurrents of fear and danger follow closely behind every benign scene into the yawn of reality.
Then another twist occurs. Alison’s heart leaps when she meets the gorgeous man of her Italian dreams, CEO Nick. Portrayed by the always excellent Alessandro Nivola, whose versatility and range shines in every role, Nick saves her from monotony. Interestingly, his wild, dangerous assistant Kat (the ironic, sharp Aubrey Plaza) remains opaque and superior as Nick’s closest associate in grooming women. Introducing herself as Nick’s liaison, she becomes Alison’s gateway to the “real” Tuscany. If Alison goes with Kat and Nick, she won’t need her passport. Besides, who cares? She’s stoked to escape the sameness of her vapid American life represented by the “Tuscan” motel and classroom.
Swept off Her Feet
Swept off her feet by Nick and Kat, Alison buys into wherever they take her. Alison enjoys Nick’s seduction tactics on his boat. And she appreciates a night out with Kat, riding on her motorcycle to a bona fide Tuscan town. The pair hook her without much trouble.
And then more weirdness happens. Whether their expectations of her diminish or vice versa, Nick and Kat end-stop the adventure. Kidnapped once again by boredom back at the Tuscan Grove motel, she deflates and chafes. Disturbed, Alison notices that the other women disappear from the classes. Miffed, jealous, she assumes Nick and Kat recruited each of the others for fun “under the Tuscan sun.”
Meanwhile, Dana has suspicions. As he relates them to Alison, they form an alliance. They question the weird goings-on. Of course Alison keeps quiet about her own hope-filled and hopeless time with Nick. Adventure, romance and great food and wine remain elusive for the group. And the dumped Alison, who tasted the magic, now questions everything she experienced.
The Ugly American
This is no spoiler alert. Spin Me Round deserves a look-see for the performances, the ironies, the “great expectations” gone wrong. Additionally, take note of the theme of the ugly American turned upside down. Baena and Brie give it a new twist with sardonic humor. Indeed, this Italian experience reflects a clever approach to sequestering ugly “America First” Tuscan Grove managers from being themselves in Italy. It would seem they only let the pretty ones out of the clean, boring cage. But only for a brief time.
As an interesting side note, the writers comment on narrow American attitudes. One point they make is that Americans don’t realize how they portray themselves chowing down on the industrially mechanized cultural rip-offs that uplift the “America First” fast-food ideal. Nick’s CEO remains tellingly perceptive and ridiculing of American taste and attitudes. Seeing an opportunity, he exploits the worst of what the market will bear with an attitude of “That’s all they want…then that’s all they deserve.” Perhaps he has a point. Still, Alison teaches him a lesson and learns one from him as well.
Look for Spin Me Round on your favorite channels. Check the IMBD website for updates.