A frothy wish-fulfillment comedy that takes a few wildly unpredictable turns, “Spin Me Round” serves up an al dente satire of corporate retreat culture by following the manager of a popular pasta restaurant on an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy, where nothing goes as she expected. Amber (Alison Brie) imagines something along the lines of the company’s TV commercials, in which handsome Tuscan Grove founder Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola) serves pasta in the shade of the family villa — the ideal backdrop for a straightforward rom-com scenario. But this sly if slightly undercooked movie has other plans, earning its title as it keeps us guessing.
Reteaming with “Horse Girl” director Jeff Baena, Brie co-wrote the script, conceiving her own character as a basic, ambitionless Audrey Hepburn type — all the better to misdirect audiences, who’ve been led to believe they’re in for a low-budget “Roman Holiday,” rather than the more “Suspiria”-like genre hybrid that follows. Is this supposed to be some kind of sitcom? A thriller? A provocative #MeToo statement on sexual dynamics in the workplace? Yes, all of the above, it turns out.
Back home in Bakersfield, Amber’s life is so boring that she spends her nights dreaming of alfredo sauce. Single and fast approaching 40, Amber has dedicated the past nine years of her life to Tuscan Grove, a bland strip-mall Italian food joint, where her boss Paul (Lil Rel Howery) rewards her loyalty by submitting Amber for the company’s “exemplary managers program” in Pisa, Italy. She wasn’t always this unspontaneous, as a brief shot of her lower-back tattoo suggests, and the prospect of visiting Europe for the first time evokes real “Emily in Paris” potential — if Darren Star were directing, that is.
But Baena (“The Little Hours”) has a far more subversive sensibility, as suggested by his portrayal of the Tuscan Grove restaurant chain, an even-more-soulless Olive Garden knockoff. Early on, the film takes us back into the kitchen, where there are no chefs to be seen — just stainless steel counters where employees squirt prepackaged sauce on microwave pasta. When you go to a restaurant like Olive Garden, you can take comfort in knowing what you’re going to get. The “Tour of Italy” tastes the same in Times Square as it does in Tallahassee — which is true for most romantic comedies as well. Not this one. When it works, “Spin Me Round” feels like finding a scorpion in your spaghetti.
Amber has never been abroad, but she goes into the trip convinced that love could be in the cards — which makes it slightly less suspicious when Nick’s assistant Kat (a spray-tanned Aubrey Plaza) arranges for her to sneak away from planned activities to spend a day on his yacht. (On Netflix, audiences can find sexy French character study “An Easy Girl,” a film generous enough to withhold judgment about such opportunism, whereas Baena and Brie are far more conflicted.) The movie allows Amber to indulge her Cinderella fantasy, even as it acknowledges the all-around inappropriateness of this situation, from the Harvey Weinstein-esque M.O. of having a complicit female colleague establish trust to the insistence on secrecy after the fact.
Still, it’s easy to see why Amber might play along. It certainly beats sitting indoors with Craig (Ben Sinclair), the creepy program coordinator, who isn’t nearly as suave as Nick when he makes passes at the other attendees (all but two are women). The other managers are all weirdos in one way or another, with Molly Shannon stealing most of the laughs as Deb, a slightly older woman determined to milk this opportunity for all it’s worth. Anytime one of the other castmates says or does something idiotic, the camera cuts to Deb, squinting judgmentally in their direction. That’s a comic strategy, always good for a laugh, though it reinforces a general sense of suspicion and unease that editor Ryan Brown sows early.
The program is not at all what it seems, and once Amber realizes that pretty much everyone in attendance wants a piece of her — from Nick to Kat to a local artist/swinger (Fred Armisen) — she starts to get very paranoid. Understandably so. “Spin Me Round” is most entertaining as it teases the various possible explanations for the program’s true purpose, spiraling into delirious absurdity as Amber turns to Dana (Zach Woods of “The Office”) with her concerns. While they try to Scooby-Doo their way to the bottom of the mystery, others in the group (including Tim Heidecker, Ayden Mayeri and Debby Ryan) begin to act strangely and disappear, culminating in a scene that likely would’ve earned Stanley Kubrick an X rating a quarter-century earlier.
As kooky as the movie gets by its climax, there’s a perfectly good explanation for everything that happens. It’s a shame that Kat exits the film so early, as her palpable sense of disdain (one of Plaza’s specialties) ought to carry through to the end, which feels incomplete without it. In a way, Amber has won the grown-up version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, but instead of wandering wide-eyed through company headquarters, she comes away disillusioned: In situations like this, business and pleasure mix about as well as oil and vinegar, proving the rule that if you want to enjoy eating at Tuscan Grove — or Olive Garden or whatever — it’s probably best to steer clear of their kitchens.