I Can Quit Whenever I Want (Smetto Quando Voglio) is a film that had some hurdles to overcome from the get-go, namely the label of being the ‘Italian Breaking Bad’ as well as opening the film with The Offspring’s “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”, perhaps not as an egregious crime against taste in Italy, but it induced some cringes in its first Sydney audience. I think it does enough to separate itself from Gilligan’s pop culture phenomenon, or at the very least, justify its existence by showing why the story has a particular resonance in contemporary Italy (though the soundtrack remains pretty woeful). More than anything, it succeeds on a comic level, milking the most from its talented cast and their absurd characters, never forgetting what its biggest strengths are.
Pietro (Edoardo Leo)is a college professor up for contract at his university, though his research pitch is too in-depth for the board of bureaucrats who decide such things, and he loses his job all while trying to please his demanding girlfriend. Desperate for money, but not one for the criminal lifestyle, he enters into the drug trade because of a particular legislative loophole – the only way a drug is outlawed in Italy is if its particular chemical makeup is on an exhaustive list of banned substances from the Ministry of Health. Anything else is fair game to make, consume and sell. As such, drug dealers continually make new forms of drugs that need to be explicitly named on the government list to be illegal. He enlists the help of various underemployed academic friends – the Latin scholars at the petrol station, the archaeology expert working in construction, etc – to make and distribute a new, better product, while hiding his new profession from his girlfriend who conveniently happens to be a counsellor for drug addicts.
It couldn’t be said that I Can Quit Whenever I Want steps too far out of the realms of predictability, and on a narrative level the film to an extent goes through the motions, hitting all the notes one might expect from the template. The highs and excesses when they succeed, the way in which it unravels – there’s nothing in the film that hasn’t been seen time and time again, and there’s a certain lack of imagination in the structure that disappoints. Character dynamics like that between Pietro and the nagging girlfriend are tired (Valeria Solarino), and its also is worth noting that its aesthetic is mostly heinous – way over-saturated colours that aside from some nice impressionistic night club scenes, end up looking quite horrible with ugly greens and yellows dominating the film. In any case, it’s far from a perfect film.
The pop culture reference points are ostensibly Breaking Bad as well as GoodFellas and Casino-style crime pictures in the use of montage when bringing all the gang together, detailing their operations and of course, the inevitable downfall. However, there is a more culturally specific tradition that I Can Quit Whenever I Want is working in, which is the beloved Commedia all’Italiana, the style of films made by Mario Monicelli, Pietro Germi, Dino Risi and others in the 1950s and 60s, which blended incisive social satire with wildly popular comedy. The film is particularly indebted to the style in two main ways – the band of useless criminals coming together springs from the mould of Monicelli’s classic heist film I Soliti Ignoti (known in the West as Big Deal on Madonna Street, generally credited as the first major Commedia film), while films like Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned traditionally base their premises on particularly absurd and anachronistic laws that characters try to take advantage of, indicative of the broken, bureaucratically inefficient legal system continually fixed with band-aid legislation (such as the drug list) rather than legislative overhaul.
Great Italian comedies have always been concerned with social satire, and this film takes the Breaking Bad template to highlight a problem that, while not exclusive to Italy, has historically been very important to the country – of continual cuts to academia and research, combined with (in fact, inextricably connected to) the cultural devaluation of the profession and higher education, a problem connected with the historical Italian trend of fuga di cervelli (“brain drain”) as intellectuals and academics unable to find work at home seek work and opportunities abroad. Walter White’s profession as a teacher was mainly a tool around which the narrative could work, both in terms of believability (having the ability to make drugs) and moral dimensions (ostensibly a paragon of mild virtue) – I Can Quit Whenever I Want takes it much further as the plight of today’s academics becomes the main subtext.
This is connected to the main strength of the film, which is the interplay between all the motley gang of professors as they ingratiate themselves into the drug lord lifestyle, and the film never forgets that this is its strongest element. Scenes of them engaging in qualitative consumer research in a night club, arguing in Latin, continually bringing in their respective specialities into the mix keep the film consistently funny and engaging, adding the film’s own colour to the mostly tired structure. Even scenes that are perhaps a little ill-conceived – the director’s vision of a gay nightclub would have been a lame stereotype in a 1980s film – end up delivering for the sheer go-for-broke stylings of the supporting characters, as the film wisely doesn’t make the comparatively bland central protagonist the continual star of the show. It ends up succeeding, if you’ll pardon the pun, as an hilarious ensemble comedy with brains.
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