Screenwriter and director Jeff Baena’s “Spin Me Round” keeps throwing ideas at you. For a while, the movie appears to be heading toward a premise that’s simple and eerie, until Baena reveals it to be but a stop on an ongoing tour of passing fancies.
One doesn’t expect to compare a Baena movie with a Jordan Peele production, but that’s where I find myself here. Like “Nope,” which has enough semiotic significance for 20 movies and virtually nothing in the way of tangibly human narrative, “Spin Me Round” forgets that less is more. It’s another Me Too-themed movie, which is fine, but theme alone is not usually enough. A plot’s nice and, if the film appears to be aspiring toward comedy, maybe some jokes.
As noted, the central idea is promising. Amber (Alison Brie) is a woebegone woman living in California who for 10 years has been working at a chain that’s obviously meant 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 prefab pasta it actually sells. The trips suggest a PR stunt, but hey, a free trip’s a free trip. Reeling from a bad breakup and having never left the U.S. before, Amber is ready for adventure. More specifically, she’s ready for “Eat Pray Love.”
Amber lands in Italy and finds the accommodations as half-assed as the restaurant for which she works. The villa where she’s supposed to stay is actually for V.I.P.s, while she and her fellow apprentices are stuffed into the sort of cheap motel you drive by every 30 miles on the interstate. 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 the class. That’s one of the better jokes. In fact, Sinclair, who nails the bored, latently passive aggressive entitlement of a middle manager, may be the funniest thing in “Spin Me Round.”
Anyway, Amber is disappointed and her fellow classmates are the usual assortment of kooks encountered in comedies made in the wake of shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” One of them is played by Molly Shannon, who appears in movies too infrequently and is quite funny, until Baena pushes her character beyond her one-joke function. Another is played by Tim Heidecker, a specialist in hipster blowhards. And so on. Baena, who wrote the script with Brie, conditions you to expect something like “Cedar Rapids,” only with a more romantic setting.
The wild cards are Brie, who invests Amber with a core of authentic yearning, and Aubrey Plaza, whose erotic, unstable vibe seems to belong to another movie altogether. Plaza plays Kat, the assistant of Nick (Alessandro Nivola), the owner of the Olive Garden clone. Nick is set up to be such a nice guy that it will surprise no one that he’s a hound, with Kat serving as his female wrangler. Kat is tired of it, and Plaza plays her with scalding, quasi-amusing fury. Of course, naïve Amber becomes Nick’s next intended conquest. “Eat Pray Love” could be within Amber’s sights, until reality comes knocking.
“Spin Me Round” has a sturdy first act or so, which could serve as foundation for any number of stories. The problem is that Baena hopscotches between several possibilities, frittering his film away to nothing. Most intriguingly, it seems as if “Spin Me Round” is on the verge of turning into a horror movie. Nick takes Amber to a decadent party where he appears to be grooming her as a sexual offering to the guests, the most prominent of which is played by Fred Armisen. The idea of “Eat Pray Love” morphing without notice into a feminist “Hostel” is chilling, and there is indeed a secret about how the bogus cooking academy is assembled each year.
But Baena doesn’t stick with the thread. A hot romance between Amber and Kat is implied, and Brie and Plaza have palpable chemistry, but that doesn’t go anywhere either. Getting bored, as I was, Baena starts cutting around between his secondary kooks, trying to bring everything to a head. Soon, the hijinks just start to feel routine and pointless.
Baena is talented, and his “The Little Hours” is among the more pleasurable of recent American comedies. He has a willingness to follow his gut with his movies, which can lead to exciting as well as tedious places. That is the risk of making your own rules, and he draws the short straw this time. I got the impression that “Spin Me Round” is one of those movies in which pointlessness is the point, reflecting the protagonist’s stalled life. But we’re already able to 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 review “Orphan: First Kill” next.
I liked 2009’s “Orphan,” which had a few surprisingly sick jokes for a mainstream horror movie. I didn’t expect much from a many-years-later sequel to an already absurd premise, in which a European con artist with a ludicrous malady pretends to be a 10-year-old orphan and wreaks havoc. I hoped for “so bad it’s good.” What I got was “so bad it’s unwatchable.” I tapped out at minute 31. Which is to say do not consider this a review, but a warning.
Instead let me see you out with a brief word about what’s easily the highest profile sequel this month: a novelized continuation of Michael Mann’s seminal 1995 crime film “Heat,” which is called “Heat 2” and written by Mann with the crime novelist Meg Gardiner. “Heat 2” is not a novelization of a movie, which in this case doesn’t exist yet. Novelizations suggest a cheap cash-in rather than literature, while “Heat 2” is a real novel with Mann’s usual attention to detail and chic, diamond-hard dialogue. Like most Mann films, it’s also more than a little silly.
The first “Heat” was cops-n-robbers on an epic scale, with slivers of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” for extra muscle. The plot is simple: bad guys want to rob a bank and good guys want to stop them. “Heat” is remembered years after many similar movies have been forgotten because Mann has a brilliance for textural detail and for astonishingly tactile action sequences. And because the cast is front-loaded with heavy hitters like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, and on and on. It’s a macho movie that “guys-movie” guys and cinephiles can applaud in equal measure.
On the page, without the moody score and the visages of legendary actors, Mann’s pulp dialogue can sound stilted. However, Mann and Gardiner have a gift that’s valuable for crime writers: they can turn stiltedness into a fashion statement, selling Mann’s ongoing idea of alienation as the unifying human condition. Pacino’s super cop and De Niro’s brilliant bank robber are conjoined by their skills and mutual case of the sads.
“Heat 2” opens with a reprise of the film, which ended with Pacino killing De Niro, while Kilmer, one of De Niro’s least stable yet most devoted acolytes, escaped to unknown places. Narratively, the novel is much more complicated than its cinematic predecessor. It’s partially a remake of “Heat,” in which a shady hood, in this case a brutal home invader, pisses the good guys and bad guys off alike. It’s also a prequel and a sequel, with threads leading to Taiwan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paraguay, and Mexico. The Kilmer character is accorded lead status here, as he becomes a player in selling illegal defense systems to cartels, while diving into a forbidden romance that suggests the relationship between Colin Farrell and Gong Li in Mann’s film of “Miami Vice.”
The plot is inventive as the strands eventually coalesce, in another seeming nod to Altman, into a singular opera of human futility. Many characters get what’s coming to them, but the survivors, haunted by ghosts, push on to chase the next rush. I didn’t take “Heat 2” very seriously, but it grabs hold of you: Think a Don Winslow novel without his political fury. And for anyone keeping score, there’s three, huge set pieces that could, if rendered for the screen, rival the bank robbery shootout of 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” happening on screen with him at the helm. Which is to say that “Heat 2” is a dream only half realized, abounding in scenes written for actors too old to play them. Everything is fleeting.