Stay Away From Me (Stai lontana da me) is a film with a rare void of artistry – a film of such broad humour, full of tired clichés of the genre and contradictory narrative impulses and logic that it’s hard to imagine this could be the work of any actual human, so devoid it is of vision or personality. It feels like the product of some soulless computer program, where the input was a random selection of ten or so of the least notable rom-coms of the last few year and the output was a random assemblage of different elements and set pieces from those films in a patchwork, by-the-numbers procession. But really, it seems like the worst sort of ‘designed by committee’ film – not only are there three credited screenwriters (including director Alessio Maria Federici), but it’s a direct remake of a 2011 French film, La chance de ma vie – a fact curiously absent from all Australian promotional materials – which probably helps illuminate why the film is so uninspiring and lacking in character.
The premise alone is probably enough to dissuade most discerning moviegoers from checking out the film, or at the very least may discharge my burden of proving the film was unsatisfactory. Jacopo (Enrico Brignano) is a marriage counsellor, but unable to sustain any relationships of his own as any girl he gets involved with attracts mysterious incidents of misfortune, which he attributes to a curse put on him many years ago by a spurned romantic interest. He’s determined to stay away from women, but is irresistibly attracted to Sara (Ambra Angiolini), who he meets after a wedding and then comes to him for counselling for her own relationship. And so we begin the rom-com checklist. Her current partner is inattentive workaholic – he’s also mentioned several times to be a lawyer, just in case we had any problems as to where our sympathies are supposed to lie.1 However, when Jacopo starts dating he curiously disappears for the rest of the film, eliminating an easy source of conflict that the film probably wasn’t willing or able to handle. The other romantic competitor, a sex pest at Sara’s work, is also randomly brushed aside later, making Jacopo and Sara’s relationship conveniently uncomplicated once he asks her out.
Jacopo and Sara very quickly fall in love – we know this not through chemistry between the leads or nuanced dialogue, but because we are given one long montage of their first date, of Sara and Jacopo laughing at jokes we can’t hear (it’s montage, remember, so the writers are temporarily off the hook), goofing around at stereotypical date activities (bowling) and within about three minutes (our time) they’re dating, very happily. And then, the ‘funny stuff’ that fills out trailers happen, when a series of accidents and bad luck befalls Sara, mostly slapstick, often with horrendous CGI (a dog jumping out a window and bouncing off a tent, setting in motion a series of misfortunes was a particular lowlight) without any sense of visual ingenuity or really any gag we hadn’t seen before. And of course, we even get to show priests getting outraged by a porn film after an hilarious mix-up – there’s no more tried and true formula than outraged clergymen! And they thought they were getting Sara’s plans for church designs!2 It’s one of the many attempts to outrage viewers, mildly offensive but not genuinely transgressive; another would be the recurring gag of a stuttering taxi driver that just comes across more as mean than funny.
After this embarrassing setback, Sara tells Jacopo that she wants him out of her life, though this is strangely inverted after the convenient plot turns that allow them to get back together, where suddenly Jacopo apologises for forcing her out, which directly contradicts the way we saw the first two thirds of the movie play out. It’s one of the many really careless moments in the script that we’re probably supposed to overlook while laughing or feeling emotional. But it all just feels like, logic or character be damned, the film sets up all the cogs so we can go to a home stretch that again feels way too familiar – we even get to interrupt a wedding! – to really enjoy. And after so many painful scenes of establishing the curse, proving that Jacopo isn’t imagining it, it ultimately disappears when a character tells him that it’s all one metaphor for his own love life, that registers as stupid when we hear it, and even stupider when we think about the scenes which we try and read retrospectively in light of this revelation. It doesn’t work, and nor does the ultimate premise – that couples kiss, fight and then kiss again – because the film tries to draw an analogy between Jacopo’s profession and his own love life. But Jacopo and Sara don’t fight, they stay away from each other because they believe he is endangering her. It’s not analogous, and the ending of the film feels not just deflating but irrelevant as it tries to bring these two very different relationship narratives together.
Ultimately, this feels like a Not Another Teen Movie but with zero self-awareness, it becomes almost amusing in the way it proceeds through different tropes, not subverted but lazily assumed and then discarded like one would change clothes. Everything is played so predictably, and though the premise kind of telegraphed a mostly uninspiring affair, there were aspects that could have been explored even slightly – at 37, Angiolini looks way too old for her character, but this could have been a character arc of her own to explore – why she still lives in a share house, is at intern level in her career and with a chaotic personal life, but she is nothing more than a cipher for Jacopo’s romantic attraction. Similarly, Jacopo looks more like a Jonah Hill character than a Gerard Butler, so to the audience Sara is clearly out of his league but nevertheless he clearly has no problem attracting women. This casting could have allowed for some interesting dynamics, a real odd couple, instead of the relationship between two boring, attractive 20-somethings dictated by the script, with the result that we don’t really muster up enough suspension of disbelief or any real sort of engagement.
This is not a good film – of the type that normally would have been destined to languish in bargain DVD bins at K-Mart, until the eventual demise of physical media, or of civilisation itself. But because it’s in Italian, this lazy mainstream awful comedy insidiously claws its way into prestigious film festivals, using its language and country of origin like some form of cultural Trojan horse. Ultimately, the most accurate review of the film is the title itself, Stay Away From Me, which I like to imagine is from some clever intern buried away somewhere in the marketing department of the film, trying not so much to encapsulate the film, but to offer a subversive, desperate warning to potential viewers, a warning which I’ll happily co-sign.