Spin Me Round Review: Alison Brie Gets Embroiled In A Meandering But Entertaining Comedic Thriller [SXSW]

South by Southwest's hottest new comedic thriller is "Spin Me Round." This movie has it all. A management training seminar in Italy for an Olive Garden-esque restaurant chain. A romantic rendezvous with a mysterious gentleman on an expensive yacht. Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie riding a scooter before having a passionate makeout session in the middle of the street. Tim Heidecker as the epitome of every overconfident douchebag from the cooking competition series of your choice. A pack of deadly, wild boars. And what's that? It's an "Eyes Wide Shut"-style sex party featuring Fred Armisen and a dildo machine.

"Spin Me Round," the latest movie from "The Little Hours" writer/director Jeff Baena, brings his "Horse Girl" star Alison Brie into a wild film that mashes up a somewhat Hitchcockian thriller with a 1970s-style international romance and an indie comedy, resulting in a movie that's somewhere between "Waiting..." and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." 

If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is. But somehow this genre mash-up still coalesces into a film that is quite entertaining, largely because it's so unpredictable, weird, and flat-out funny.

An opportunity of a lifetime

Alison Brie is Amber, the manager of an Italian restaurant called Tuscan Grove, clearly a riff on Olive Garden. It's just one of several in a chain of restaurants across the country, each with the kind of gourmet food that has alfredo sauce elegantly poured out of a bag over delectable microwaved noodles. But Amber is dedicated to her job, and she keeps the restaurant running smoothly and efficiently. That's why she's been selected to partake in the franchise's educational immersion program in Italy. More than an opportunity to give her career a boost, she and her friendly Emily (Ego Nwodim) have an inkling that she's going to find love on this trip. This has the makings of your typical life-changing indie romance where a woman learns more about herself than she ever imagined. But "Spin Me Round" has plenty of surprises in store.

As soon as Amber lands in Italy, there's a vaguely ominous vibe to the proceedings that hints at the chaos to come, but not exactly in a sinister way. First, there's Craig (Ben Sinclair of "High Maintenance"), their strange group leader who immediately requests to hold onto their passports. Then there are the trip's accommodations, which initially appear to be a grand Italian villa until the characters pull into the equivalent of a Days Inn, where a train can seemingly always be heard driving by nearby. Meanwhile, the immersion program itself takes place in what amounts to nothing more than a bare-bones conference room. This might as well be a community class at the local YMCA, complete with a movie day where Craig wheels in a tube TV with a VCR, so everyone can watch "Life Is Beautiful," which Craig has heard is "supposed to be a banger."

There's a wealth of comedy that comes from the immersion program itself, largely thanks to the ensemble cast at play. We have Tim Heidecker ("Us") as Fran, who's still arrogantly riding a short wave of "fame" from being on an episode of "Chef's Challenge." Zach Woods ("The Office") plays Dana, who couldn't be more of an overeager Tuscan Grove fanboy. Ayden Mayeri ("New Girl") is the bubbly, borderline ditsy Jen, and Debby Ryan as the effortlessly cool but dry one of the bunch. And finally, there's Molly Shannon as Deb, who seems to be itching to partake in a little adultery, but only because she's constantly reiterating how she'd never step out on her husband back home. She's also pretty bummed because the airport lost her luggage.

If the movie was just about this group of people partaking in this managerial seminar for a comedy along the lines of "Waiting..." and "Office Space," it would be perfectly fine. There's a sort of fast and loose improvisational vibe to the comedy with the characters bouncing off one another with satisfying comical results. But making everything far more complex is the interlude of a mysterious romantic sort of thriller that begins when Tuscan Grove fonder and CEO Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola) shows up with his assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza).

When the thriller feels like filler

Injecting a small amount of tension and suspense into the proceedings is this Hitchcockian-style thriller, as Amber finds herself being whisked away into a whirlwind romance with Nick, complete with a one-on-one day spent on his luxurious yacht. It's all orchestrated by Kat, who has an air of mystery and edginess about her that seems to simultaneously excite and intimidate Amber. But it's not quite the fairytale love story that it seems. Amber isn't the only one who has caught the affections of Nick, as the Tuscan Grove founder seems to be working his way through the young female managers on the restaurant retreat, with Kat sneaking them away from the program under the guise of feeling sick. In fact, it appears the entire program is merely a front for Nick to hook up with his most capable franchise managers, and things only get weirder from there.

However, the thriller element of this movie never feels like it has an opportunity to blossom into a significant enough danger. It's constantly undercut by the film's comedy, which seems far better developed than the intrigue at play in the story. There's an energy to "Spin Me Round" that feels like it's trying to emulate sultry romances of the 1970s, complete with a groovy soundtrack and warm cinematography capturing the beauty that only Italy can offer. But again, the thrills and mystery never really find firm footing because of the comedic style that overshadows the rest of the movie. Aubrey Plaza's character, in particular, seems to only exist as a catalyst for Amber to taste some forbidden fruit and become embroiled in this larger story, and her character disappears rather unceremoniously. Without her character, the story might have felt more focused, but Jeff Baena clearly wanted to bite off a little more, even if he has some trouble chewing it. I found myself much more entranced by the laughs than the intrigue of it all.

Despite this shortcoming, though, I still found enjoyment in the escalating mystery and keyed-up energy as Amber and one of the other Tuscan Grove managers become fearful of the strange situation in which they've found themselves. Based on Jeff Baena's previous work, that seems intentional, as he often blends traditional comedy with genres that you don't typically find many laughs in. But in the case of "Spin Me Round," it makes for a messier story that feels like two completely different movies forced into one. Even so, as unnecessarily intricate and eyebrow-raising as the story might be, "Spin Me Round" at least feels original — it's never boring, and what unfolds is admirably entertaining enough that it's hard to downright dislike. But not unlike the Italian "cuisine" of Tuscan Grove, it still leaves something to be desired. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10