Mark and Jay Duplass executive produced a film at SXSW that seems to be a comedy that might have been a romance, that considers becoming a thriller (briefly) and also works in a plug for female empowerment. It Is pretty meandering and difficult to categorize. The script (Allison Brie and Director Jeff Baena) needed work and focus.
I met the Duplass Brothers at the Chicago International Film Festival many years ago (2011), when “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” was hitting the festival circuit, and, since then, have enjoyed their individual appearances in “The Morning Show” as Jennifer Aniston’s director Chip Black (Mark) or in “Tully” and Jay’s breakout role as Bill Dobson in “The Chair,” the loopy widowed professor. I also enjoyed “Jeff, Who Lives At Home.” but other Duplass outings seemed low-budget (“Creep”) and poorly crafted. But this one had some truly funny people in it, so I gambled and lost.
This effort seems not to know what it is going for. The cast tells us that it is going to be a comedy. Why do I say that? We have, as its lead, Allison Brie (of “G.L.O.W.”), Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”) and Molly Shannon, “SNL” alums; Zach Woods (“Veep”) as Dana and Aubrey Plaza (“Parks & Rec”) as Kat. All-in-all, it’s a cast that should scream comedy, but the difficult-to-determine-what-it-is screenplay, co-written by Allison Brie (who also produced) and Jeff Baena, the writer/director, doesn’t seem to make up its mind what it’s going for, even by film’s end. It was a film that started out being about Italian pasta. I honestly felt as though those in charge just threw everything against the wall and hoped something would stick.
The tag line for the film is: “A woman wins an all-expenses trip to a company’s gorgeous “institute” outside of Florence and also the chance to meet the restaurant chain’s wealthy and charismatic owner. She finds a different adventure than the one she imagined.”
Shooting began in Italy in June of 2021; the Italian countryside is beautiful.
Her co-star in what seems to be trying to become a romance instead of a comedy is Alessandro Nivola, who we saw in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the “Sopranos” prequel.
As mentioned in the tag line, a young girl (Allison Brie), who works in an Italian chain restaurant, the Tuscan Grove in Bakersfield, California, fashioned on The Olive Garden or Biaggi’s, is sent off to Tuscany in what is touted as the Tuscan Grove Exemplary Managers’ Institute. There, she joins a group of other such selected employees from around the United States, some of them wacky (Molly Shannon as Deb) and some of them other pretty young girls or random weird males. The founder of the chain, a handsome wealthy fellow (Alessandro Nivola) stops by and the plot takes off, more-or-less (mostly less).
From the outset, we get the impression that Aubrey Plaza as Kat is mainly employed by the chain’s founder (Alessandro Nivola as Nick) to pimp for him, separating the more desirable female attendees from the group and herding them out to Nick’s yacht, where he comes on strong as a romantic suitor. The character of Kat also allows the film to include today’s obligatory lesbian vibe, despite the fact that it seems totally unsuitable to moving this plot forward (which seems to be a heterosexual romance, at that point).
Alessandro Nivola looked too old for Allison Brie’s character, (and somewhat out-of-shape), but rich men always get a pass, so that I could deal with. (He is 10 years older than Ms. Brie, in real life.) Things seem to be heading in the direction of a romantic comedy (some of the other attendees, like Molly Shannon, are wacky, and her outfits are over-the-top) but then the plot take a darker turn, as visions of Epstein’s island activities crowd our consciousness and a murder is even suggested.
Fred Armison, portraying a wealthy artist with a villa who hosts large orgies where wild boars (there is an actual boar handler listed in the credits) ramble through is not “funny,” and the entire enterprise teetered on the brink of “Who killed Dana?” for a moment until—wonder of wonders—-Dana (Zach Woods of “Veep”) isn’t really dead after all.
In short, the script is a mess and the message of the script seems lost in the many mis-steps of tone.
At the very end of this Cinema-by-committee offering, the wealthy suitor (Alessandro Navolo, who has completely embarrassed himself with a crying scene that is more comic than dramatic, but never convincing) shows up in person to pitch Allison Brie’s character back in Bakersfield, California, at her franchise outlet, bringing with him a baby turtle ( turtle wrangler on set). She tells Nick to get lost, which, given the events that have occurred prior to his Grand Finale appearance, seems like too little, too late. So there’s our “Be gone, toxic masculinity!” moment.
I’ve been burned by some Duplass Brothers low-budget horror flicks before, but this potential comedy had people in it who can be genuinely funny. I was suckered in by that, alone.
You won’t make much sense out of the film, either, but I’m sure that Alessandro and Allison will have better roles in better films in the future.