Some misfires are far more interesting than others, and that’s certainly the case with director/co-writer Jeff Baena’s “Spin Me Round,” a restaurant-themed romp that starts off in rom-com land, veers off into territory hinting at the strange and disturbing darkness of a “Midsommar” or an “Eyes Wide Shut,” and winds up somewhere in between, coming across as half-baked and undercooked.
Apologies for the foodie puns, but it’s appropriate for the intriguing setup from the gifted and wonderfully offbeat Baena (“Life After Beth,” “Horse Girl”) and co-writer and lead actor Alison Brie, who has such an endearing and versatile screen presence that she should be enjoying even bigger stardom than her impressive career has already yielded. Brie’s Amber is the manager of a Bakersfield, California, branch of an Olive Garden-esque chain restaurant called Tuscan Grove, where she’s worked for the last decade. In a perfectly rendered TV ad for Tuscan Grove, the handsome and dashing Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola) talks of the down-home, authentic Italian, family-recipe legacy of the Tuscan Grove menu and tradition—but the reality is, everything is prepared in mass, fast-food fashion, eg, the Alfredo sauce comes in pre-packaged vacuum bags.
Still, Amber seems to love her job, and she’s thrilled beyond belief when she’s tabbed to join a number of other Tuscan Grove chefs from around the US at the Martucci family villa in central Italy for an educational immersion program, where they’ll soak up the local culture and learn from the very best talents in the restaurant’s chain of command. What an opportunity—not just for work but for potential romance, as Amber’s best friend Emily (a criminally underused Ego Nwodim) suggests. This could be just like “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Roman Holiday!”
From the moment Amber arrives in Italy, things start to go sideways. The group’s creepy, leering, camera-wielding guide Craig (Ben Sinclair) collects their passports and informs them they’re not staying in the villa, they’ll be holed up in a crummy hotel down the road. Also, they’re not to leave the premises without permission, and they’re going to be spending their days in a depressingly drab conference room, learning food preparation basics they should already know but apparently don’t. Amber is joined by Molly Shannon’s Deb, who is clearly unhinged; Tim Heidecker’s Fran, who was once on a reality cooking show and thinks he’s a celebrity; Debby Ryan’s Susie and Ayden Mayeri’s Jen, who are determined to get their party game going, and Zach Woods’ Dana, a twitchy nerd who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Tuscan Grove.
Just when Amber is convinced this whole trip is a bust, in swoops none other than Nick Martucci himself, who is taken back about how much Amber resembles a certain key and quite dead figure in his life. With the aid of Nick’s mysteriously vague assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza), Amber is swept off her feet by Nick after spending a day on his boat with him. It’s like a dream come true—but it’s also more than a little creepy, what with Nick being the head of the company and telling Amber they have to keep this between them.
Nick’s manipulations turn into flat-out gaslighting, and then various members of the group go missing, leading Amber and Dana to team up as amateur detectives determined to find out just what it going on with Nick and Kat, not to mention the bizarre local artist Ricky (Fred Armisen) and his wife Sofia (Tricia Helfer), who welcome Amber into their home, size her up like she’s a basket of Tuscan Grove breadsticks and talk about how open-minded she appears to be. “Why does everyone keep telling me I’m open-minded!” Amber exclaims.
The “Spin Me Round” cast is nothing short of fantastic, with so many familiar comedic talents (including Lil Rel Howery, once again playing the Friend on the Phone) mining the relatively thin material for some decent laughs. Even Alessandro Nivola, an excellent actor who’s hardly known for comedy, has great fun playing against type.
Alas, the film makes spare use of the Italian locations and veers into broad, unfunny comedy near the end, where the shock factor isn’t nearly as shocking as they most likely intended, and the sense of dark satire gives way to hijinks. It’s like what we imagine a trip to a Tuscan Grove restaurant would entail: seems like a good idea at the time, and for a while the ingredients seem promising, but when it’s over you’re somehow feeling full and empty at the same time.