Corporate retreats and Hollywood rom coms share a common repressive commitment to enforced cheer.
Jeff Baena’s Spin Me Round promises to be an ingenious satire of both forms of vacuous uplift at once. Protagonist Amber (Alison Brie) has happy love and happy career shoved at her with parallel and relentless sincerity—which leaves her distinctly unhappy.
As a premise, this sounds great.
Unfortunately, though, Baena gets distracted from the central bleak vision of peppy horror by his own love of quirkiness. There are many funny bits, and a lot of great character turns. Aubrey Plaza as a feral alternachick radiating frustration and cool is brilliant. So is Zach Woods as a bemused nobody who slowly turns into a vortex of chaos.
But the whole doesn’t quite add up. The movie spins and spins, slowly dissipating its energy until it turns itself from a potentially great film into a merely adequate one.
Love Italy, Already
Amber, a manager at a crass franchise Italian restaurant in Bakersfield, CA, is selected to participate in an exclusive management training course at an Italian villa. She is thrilled, both because she’s never been out of the country, and because it seems like a chance for romance after a bad breakup.
When she arrives in Italy, though, things aren’t quite as promised. They end up being housed, not in the villa, but in a crappy hotel. They’re not allowed to go explore Italy on their own. They spend their days pursuing tedious classes led by creepy American ex-pat Craig (Ben Sinclair).
Until, that is, the owner of the company, Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola) sends his assistant Kat (Plaza) to whisk Amber away to his yacht. There he wines and dines her and tells her, over and over, what an open-minded person she is.
That’s a huge red flag. Amber isn’t particularly open-minded; Nick just wants her to be. The romance plot is a coercive bludgeon, just like the career success plot. Everyone constantly reminds Amber that they are doing her favors and giving her wonderful opportunities even as they bully her and fit her into their own bizarre psychodramas.
Life in Italy for Amber is one long exercise in gaslighting. She’s subjected to bizarre indignity after bizarre indignity: Craig takes her passport, Nick lets a colleague paw at her, and a “friend” on the trip walks off with half her wardrobe. Then they all chorus again that she’s lucky to be there.
Amber, Hard to Love
Presenting a romantic trip to Italy as a visit to the abyss is brilliant. It’s akin to the way Bridesmaids presents weddings as a gauntlet of humiliation and self-loathing.
But Annie (Kristen Wiig), the main character in Bridesmaids, is a likable person with depths of fury and jealousy. You really feel for her amidst the escalating horrors, even as it’s clear she brings many of them on herself.
Spin Me Round, in contrast, doesn’t give you much of a chance to know Amber before Italy. And once she’s there, there’s not much to her. Brie delivers a fairly one-note performance, composed of brittle cheer and uncomfortable pauses. Amber’s supposed to have a character arc in which she becomes better at enforcing boundaries. But you don’t really see it or feel it. She’s a dishmop, and then she isn’t.
A Lot of Spinning
This isn’t entirely Brie’s fault. Though Amber’s the central character, the film often seems more interested in wandering off after random gags.
Multiple performers get more or less unmotivated belligerent freak-out scenes. These are all quite fun individually. But they start to get old once you hit the third one or so. And they make Amber even less interesting, since she doesn’t ever get the same kind of hyperbolic monologue. Is she the protagonist. Or is she the straight woman?
The ending also doesn’t really deliver. The final half hour heads towards mock suspense/slasher territory before plunking down in a series of anticlimaxes. Again, it’s amusing enough to watch, but it doesn’t really build on the rom-com conceit or on the satire of corporate culture. It feels like Baena really had something to say when he started, and then he got bored with it and started throwing stuff at the wall.
The most unfortunate aspect of the film, though, is its half-hearted engagement with #MeToo and workplace harassment. Nick is Amber’s boss, and his treatment of her crosses a whole host of lines.
This is the center of the film—sort of. There’s never any doubt that Nick’s a jerk. But the movie vacillates. Sometimes it seems to want to be a surreal nightmare about abuse. And then other times it wants to use its wacky departures from realism to deflate Amber’s sense of Kafkaesque powerlessness rather than to enhance it.
Spin Me Round could be a dark night of the soul. Or it could be a light goof. But it never really settles on one or the other. As a result, despite many virtues, it is, like that trip to Italy, something of a disappointment.
Rating: 6.3/10 SPECS
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.