Writer/Director Jeff Baena’s ‘Spin Me Round’ Keeps Casting ideas to you. For a while, the film seems to be headed for a simple and strange premise, until Baena reveals that it’s just one stop in an ongoing tour of passing fantasies.
You wouldn’t expect to compare a Baena film with a Jordan Peele production, but that’s where I find myself here. Like “Nope,” which has enough semiotic meaning for 20 movies and hardly any tangibly human narrative, “Spin Me Round” forgets that less is more. It’s another Me Too-themed movie, which is good, but the theme alone isn’t usually enough. A plot is fine and, if the film seems to aspire to comedy, maybe a few jokes.
As stated, the central idea is promising. Amber (Alison Brie) is an unhappy woman living in California who has worked for 10 years at a chain that is obviously supposed to suggest Olive Garden. Like Olive Garden, this chain sends employees to Italy to study ancient culinary arts that have nothing to do with the pre-made pasta it actually sells. The trips suggest a publicity stunt, but hey, a free trip is a free trip. Reeling from a bad breakup and having never left the United States before, Amber is ready for adventure. Specifically, she’s ready for “Eat Pray Love.”
Amber lands in Italy and finds the accommodation as seedy as the restaurant she works for. The villa where she’s supposed to stay is actually VIP-only, while she and her fellow apprentices are crammed into the kind of cheap motel you drive every 30 miles down the highway. However, seeing the country is discouraged by American team leader Craig (Ben Sinclair), whose idea of the rustic Italian experience is to play Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” for class. This is one of the best jokes. In fact, Sinclair nailing the annoying, latent passive aggressive right of a middle manager is perhaps the funniest thing about “Spin Me Round.”
Either way, Amber is disappointed and her classmates are the usual assortment of kooks encountered in comedies made following shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” One of them is played by Molly Shannon, who appears too rarely in the movies and is quite funny, until Baena pushes her character beyond her joke function. Another is embodied by Tim Heidecker, a specialist in swaggering hipsters. Etc. Baena, who wrote the screenplay with Brie, conditions you to expect something like “Cedar Rapids,” but with a more romantic setting.
The wildcards are Brie, who invests Amber with a core of genuine desire, and Aubrey Plaza, whose erotic, unstable vibe seems like it belongs in another movie. Plaza plays Kat, the assistant to Nick (Alessandro Nivola), the owner of the Olive Garden clone. Nick is set up to be such a nice guy that it won’t surprise anyone that he’s a dog, with Kat serving as his wrestler. Kat is fed up, and Plaza plays her with searing, almost amusing fury. Of course, naive Amber becomes Nick’s next planned conquest. “Eat Pray Love” might be in Amber’s sights, until reality hits.
“Spin Me Round” has a solid first act or more, which could serve as the basis for any number of stories. The problem is that Baena hesitates between several possibilities, wasting her film in vain. More intriguingly, it looks like “Spin Me Round” is about to turn into a horror movie. Nick takes Amber to a decadent party where he appears to set her up as a sexual offering to the guests, the most prominent of whom is played by Fred Armisen. The idea of ”Eat Pray Love” turning without warning into a feminist “inn” is chilling, and there is indeed a secret to how the fake cooking academy is assembled each year.
But Baena does not stick with the wire. A hot romance between Amber and Kat is implied, and Brie and Plaza have a palpable chemistry, but that’s not going anywhere either. Bored, as I was, Baena begins to cut between her secondary kooks, trying to fit everything into place. Soon, hijinks begin to feel routine and unnecessary.
Baena has talent, and his “Little Hours” are among the most enjoyable recent American comedies. He is willing to follow his instincts with his films, which can lead to places that are as exciting as they are boring. It’s the risk of making its own rules, and it’s drawing the short straw this time. I got the impression that “Spin Me Round” is one of those movies in which pointlessness is the goal, reflecting the protagonist’s stalled life. But we can already read Amber’s frustrations. Committing to “Eat Pray Hostel” wouldn’t have compromised that. It would have intensified that resonance.
My original intention was to rewatch “Orphan: First Kill” next..
I liked 2009’s “Orphan,” which had some surprisingly sick jokes for a mainstream horror movie. I wasn’t expecting much from a sequel many years later to an already absurd premise, in which a European con man with a ridiculous disease pretends to be a 10-year-old orphan and wreaks havoc. I was hoping for “so bad it’s good”. What I got was “so bad it’s unwatchable”. I tapped at minute 31. I.e. don’t take this as a criticism, but as a warning.
Instead, let me see you with a quick note on what is by far the most hyped sequel this month: a fictionalized sequel to Michael Mann’s seminal 1995 crime film, “Heat,” which s titled “Heat 2” and written by Mann with crime novelist Meg Gardiner. “Heat 2” is not a novelization of a movie, which in this case does not yet exist. The novels suggest cheap cashing rather than literature, while “Heat 2” is a true romance with Mann’s usual attention to detail and classy, diamond-hard dialogue. Like most of Mann’s films, it’s also more than a little silly.
The first “Heat” was cops and robbers on an epic scale, with shards of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” for added muscle. The plot is simple: the bad guys want to rob a bank and the good guys want to stop them. “Heat” is remembered years after many similar films have been forgotten, as Mann has a genius for textural detail and for surprisingly tactile action sequences. And because the cast is made up of heavy hitters like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, and so on. It’s a macho movie that dudes and moviegoers alike can applaud in equal measure.
On the page, without the brooding score and the faces of legendary actors, Mann’s pulpy dialogue may seem stilted. However, Mann and Gardiner have a gift that’s invaluable to mystery writers: they can turn the escape into a fashion statement, selling Mann’s ongoing idea of alienation as a unifying human condition. Pacino’s super cop and De Niro’s brilliant bank robber are united by their skills and their mutual case of sadness.
“Heat 2” opens with a revival of the film, which ended with De Niro being murdered by Pacino, while Kilmer, one of De Niro’s less stable but more dedicated sidekicks, is escaped to unknown places. Narratively, the novel is much more complicated than its cinematic predecessor. It’s partly a remake of “Heat,” in which a shady hood, in this case a brutal house invader, pisses off the good guys and the bad guys. It’s also a prequel and sequel, with threads leading to Taiwan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paraguay, and Mexico. Kilmer’s character is granted lead status here, as he becomes a player in selling illegal defense systems to cartels, while delving into a forbidden romance that hints at Colin Farrell and Gong Li’s relationship in the Mann’s movie “Miami Vice”.
The plot is inventive as the strands eventually coalesce, in another apparent nod to Altman, into a singular opera of human futility. Many characters get what befalls them, but the survivors, haunted by ghosts, push to chase the next rush. I didn’t take “Heat 2” very seriously, but it grips you: think of a Don Winslow novel without its political fury. And for anyone keeping score, there are three huge set pieces that could, if made on screen, rival the bank robbery shootout from the first “Heat.”
The ultimate poignancy of “Heat 2” isn’t entirely intentional. Mann is 79 years old and working on “Ferrari”, his first film in 7 years. Despite what he says, I don’t see “Heat 2” playing on screen with him at the helm. Suffice to say, “Heat 2” is a half-realized dream, full of scenes written for actors too old to play them. Everything is ephemeral.