Though relations between Americans and Europeans—or Americans and anybody else—may be ever-increasingly wary, it remains the case that Europe is still the default dream travel destination for many. It’s got that historical and cultural depth, of course, although these days what people know of such things may well be derived from the fictive likes of Bridgerton and Downton Abbey. (If you think that’s a condescending view, let me assure you that when I visited New Zealand a few years ago, an astounding number of tourists were seemingly only there to peep locations from Lord of the Rings.) We seek romance, whether of the figurative “ambiance” kind, the literal body-rocking-with-a-sophisticated-foreign-national type, or ideally both.
Its poster duly aping a cover for the type of romance novel in which a plucky 18th-century damsel might be swept off her feet by a pirate who turns out to secretly be a duke, the new film Spin Me Round plays on those well-worn expectations. Amber (Alison Brie) is an assistant manager at a Bakersfield branch of Tuscan Grove, an Olive Garden-type restaurant chain whose “authentic” Italian cuisine is the sort entirely based on prepackaged ingredients and a lot of microwaving. But that’s OK by Amber; she is not a snob. Nor is she a drama queen, having apparently just experienced a painful relationship breakup she is soldiering on from with no fuss. It is that adaptability that persuades her boss (Lil Rey Howery) to recommend her for an “Exemplary Managers Program” retreat in actual Tuscany. There, she and lucky others will soak up authentic authenticity at the source, where alfredo sauce does not come out of a gallon-sized refrigerator squeeze bag.
Amber’s expectations must undergo some adjustment right away, as it turns out the program’s enrollees will not be housed in the picturesque villa advertised, but rather a Motel 6-like structure nearby. Also, they are not allowed to leave the premises, meaning this Italian sojourn will be basically spent in isolated dormitory-like circumstances with fellow Americans under the alternately bored and leering tutelage of one Craig (Ben Sinclair). For Amber, however, the humdrum of basic cooking lessons is quickly sidelined by attentions from no less than Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola), Tuscan Garden’s suave and handsome CEO as seen in umpteen TV commercials. He greets the mostly young female students as if gauging the ripeness of fresh produce—skimming past the two dudes, as well as Molly Shannon’s garish older Deb—settling upon our heroine as his protege du jour.
Thus she finds herself whisked in secret off to Nick’s yacht, to extravagant private parties in elegant homes, and so forth. Escorting her to and fro these rendezvouses is Kat (Aubrey Plaza), the tycoon’s jaded assistant, who decides to make Amber her new BFF—affording yet more eye-opening new experiences. However, Kat drops warning hints about Nick’s true intentions, and smitten as she is, Amber cannot help but begin to notice as other pretty women in the program also find excuses to play hooky … then disappear. Is some sort of human trafficking operation going on? Something even worse?
Written by director Jeff Baena and star Brie, Spin Me Round starts out like a more tightly scripted Best in Show-esque ensemble comedy—all Amber’s fellow travelers are very funny characters, with Shannon just the most flamboyant one. Then it teases us with a stereotypical romantic wish-fulfillment that soon gives way to suspense, criminal intrigue, even a possible murder mystery.
Yet pretty much everything here turns out to be a deliberate mislead—the filmmakers continually upend our expectations, pranking us and the protagonists for leaping to the wrong conclusion again and again, right up to the final scene. This tactic might easily turn into a shallow gimmick, but here it somehow works, even if things occasionally go over-the-top. (I could have done without the wild boars.)
Baena is married to Plaza, who is in top form here (as she was in just-released Emily the Criminal), yet Kat prematurely disappears from the narrative in yet another of its rug-pullings. The most poker-faced elements often turn out to be subversive on their own terms: Nivola, a terrifically underappreciated actor, has a crybaby scene that fouls Nick’s Sheik of Araby act as surely as a fart does a sex scene, while the lush score by veteran composer Pino Donaggio (of many a De Palma and Argento joint) musically “prints the legend,” not the facts.
Spin Me Round hasn’t gotten especially enthusiastic reviews (albeit ones less harsh than for Lena Dunham’s slightly more abrasively outre comedy Sharp Stick), but it completely delighted me—even more so than Baena’s anachronistic medieval-nunnery gag The Little Hours, which also featured Brie and Plaza. It gets extra points for mercifully sparing us the anticipated same-titled Dead or Alive song, as well as for including a vintage 10cc track that is always welcome, but given particular pride of placement here. This movie is bypassing local theaters for streaming platforms, both the usual ones and AMC+, as of Fri/19.
Also cheerfully going out on a limb or two is Orphan: First Kill, a belated prequel to the 2009 horror thriller. Back then, 11-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman played an adopted 9-year-old whose homicidal streak is explained by her turning out to actually be a 30-year-old escaped mental patient with dwarfism. That plot-twist whopper struck me as ludicrous, but it worked for some, and only added to the Bad Seed-style musk of guilty pleasure for others. Now the actress is 24, and we’re being asked to accept her as passing for an eight-year-old in an “origin story” that’s really more of a remake. At first that seems too great a leap. But it soon turns out this fairly bananas followup expects even bigger suspensions of disbelief from us.
At an Estonian asylum in 2007, Lena (Fuhrman) is the “most dangerous” ward. Like Hannibal Lecter or Michael Myers, you can bet she is not going to remain behind those locked doors for long. Several minutes and corpses later, she’s in the US, posing as a wealthy family’s long-lost daughter who went missing four years earlier (and had been presumed dead by now).
Painter dad Allen (Rossif Sutherland) is ecstatic to have his little girl back, mom Tricia (Julia Stiles) more guardedly welcoming, and bratty teenage brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) fairly indifferent. Others are more skeptical, including the police detective (Hiro Kanagawa) who’d investigated the child’s original disappearance. You may already have guessed in what order people are gonna die to preserve little “Esther’s” secret, which she zealously guards whenever not busy swilling booze, stealing every valuable not nailed down, or spying on her new “parents’” sex lives.
This is all formulaically entertaining enough, lent additional deja vu by the fact that Stiles seems to be playing pretty much the same role (in the same luxe settings) she did in that weak Omen remake 16 years ago. But not long before her character admits “This is insane, even for us,” the script jumps the shark, positing our murderous antiheroine as the least (well, next-to-least) twisted party in a den of snakes. At that point, The Boy series director William Brent Bell’s film throws any remaining caution to the wind, its energetic excesses underlined by such snarky soundtrack choices as “Maniac” from Flashdance and Jimmy Durante’s “The Glory of Love.”
This is not the kind of movie you can claim as “good.” But it is fun, its somewhat crass, cynical, campy aspects held just enough in check by reasonably straight-faced execution—well, at least until the fully shameless, literally flaming finale. Stiles, in particular, exhibits admirable restraint in a role that might have been played as Cruella de Ville on Casual Friday. Of course, it would be unwise anyway to try upstaging a concept as cartoonish as Esther-slash-Lena. This film gives her a run for her money in the loose-screws department, though. Orphan: First Kill opens in limited theaters, on digital platforms and on streamer Paramount+ this Fri/19.