Greetings again from the darkness. Expectations were sky high for the latest from writer-director Jeff Baena. His twisted humor was evident in THE LITTLE HOURS (2017), and he has collaborated again with his HORSE GIRL (2020) co-writer Alison Brie, who also takes the lead role. The assembled cast is filled to the brim with folks who have proven comedy chops, and much of the film takes place in gorgeous Italy. What could go wrong? Well, technically nothing goes wrong, it’s just not as right as we hoped.
Alison Brie stars as Amber, a dedicated 9-year manager of the Bakersfield, California Tuscan Grove restaurant. It’s a chain of Italian fast casual clearly meant to mock Olive Garden, and we get multiple shots of their pre-packaged bulk Alfredo sauce. When Amber’s District Manager (Lil Rey Henry) informs her that she’s been selected for an all-expense paid trip to Italy for the company’s immersion program, she’s thrilled to have some excitement in her life – plus her friend (Ego Nwodim) floats the idea of her finding love on the trip.
The group of managers is disappointed when the promised Italian villa is actually next door to the non-descript box motel where their rooms are located (Amber has a view of dumpsters). Sessions are held in a bland conference room, and those sessions are mostly unnecessary cooking lessons run by Lauren Weedman, offering no flavor of the country’s culture. The fun here is derived from the interplay between the characters/actors. Zach Woods plays Dana, an over-the-top superfan of Tuscan Grove and its owner; Tim Heidecker is Fran, the full-of-himself type; Ayden Mayeri is the giggly one; Debby Ryan the aloof participant; and Molly Shannon frets incessantly over her lost luggage and erases all boundaries once Amber offers to lend her some clothes. The facilitator of the sessions is oddball Craig (Ben Sinclair), who excels in moments that beg, “was that supposed to be funny?”
The dynamics change when Tuscan Grove owner Nick (Alessandro Nivola) drops in to the sessions with his assistant Kat (Aubrey Plaza, married to director Jeff Baena). Nick takes an immediate shine to Amber and their scene aboard his yacht is one of the film’s best. His attraction seems to stem from the fact that she favors his deceased sister. That’s wrong on so many levels. Beyond that, when Amber and Kat take off for a spin through the town, it’s another highlight, as Ms. Plaza and Ms. Brie play off each other magnificently.
There is a creepy element to the film. The manager’s retreat plays out differently than hoped, and the names Dana and Fran play a significant role in what is actually going on. Nick’s actions are a bit disturbing, and Kat’s role could easily be interpreted as falling into the Ghislaine Maxwell category. And then there is a tonal shift to the point where it seems we may be in the midst of a murder mystery. It’s all a bit chaotic, but never quite as funny or tense as we hope.
Ms. Brie has a wonderful screen presence as she bounces from naïve to hopeful to confused to concerned. Mr. Nivola is also terrific flashing the charisma in TV ads and then transitioning to the soulful, manipulative, entitled rich scumbag. The contrast in the story is as distinct as the two books mentioned, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “News of a Kidnapping”. Few movies combine the blandness of Bakersfield, the romance of Italy, near slapstick comedy, the suspense of a thriller, the lameness of corporate America, a kinky sex party, and a pack of stampeding wild boars. It’s a lot to take on, and some parts work better than others. While we expected it to be more clever, just know going in that you should be like Amber – guarded with an open-mind.