I Can Quit Whenever I Want
by Derek Sun
When one character asks his accomplices if the scheme they’re about to embark on is like “one of those American TV shows”, it’s a playful moment that acknowledges the similarity of I Can Quit Whenever I Want (Smetto Quando Voglio) to the acclaimed show Breaking Bad. This Italian black comedy is the debut movie of Sydney Sibilia and was a 2014 sleeper hit, pleasing both audiences and critics. It superficially owes its plot to AMC’s methamphetamine drama, but diverges in tone and style to be an original and intelligent film about the pressures of modern life and the crazy lengths people will go to survive.
In a perfect world, hardworking and erudite scientist Pietro Zinni would be basking in tenure as a respected university professor, conducting groundbreaking neurobiology research and starting a family. Instead, Pietro has just lost his teaching job and can’t even get the students he tutors to pay him for his work. At 37 years old, and with an increasingly disgruntled girlfriend and no respectable job prospects in sight, the Walter White of this movie is now another member of the educated underclass; his other friends could find no room in academia for themselves and are reduced to working as construction workers and gas station attendants.
A chance encounter with a student who stiffed him reveals to Pietro how profitable the drug trade is and how qualified he is to enter the business. Gathering his academic buddies, Pietro exploits a legal loophole to manufacture a mind-altering pill whose formula isn’t explicitly illegal under the law, and the gang soon strikes it rich as drug dealers. Inevitably, their newly acquired wealth drags them into new dilemmas, and attracts the attention of police and rival dealers.
Although it shares a basic premise with Breaking Bad, I Can Quit Whenever I Want contents itself with being silly and satirical rather than dark and depressing. It’s more cynical than the typical Italian comedy, relying less on slapstick and more on quiet humor to make its points. That each member of the gang brings a special skill on the basis of their education – the anthropologist observes behavior to attract buyers, the economist calculates earnings – is a comical touch. Flashy colors dominate throughout the film, whether it’s a scene in nightclub or an apartment, and enforce the zany atmosphere of the story. The movie is fond of wryly suggesting that given the lack of respect for scholarship nowadays, a life of crime might actually be wiser and more profitable than a life of teaching.
Sibilia got the idea for the movie after meeting two street cleaners who used to be philosophy professors, and I Can Quit Whenever I Want dramatizes with wit and venom a very real and serious issue prevalent in Europe and America. Pietro endures audiences uninterested in his research and gets unceremoniously fired due to academic politics. While the details of Italian university life are arcane to foreign viewers, graduate students anywhere can relate to the poverty and job insecurity the scholarly protagonists toil in. The film takes plenty of inspiration from classic crime movies like Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, while expertly parodying criminal behavior. Particularly hilarious is the gang’s disastrous attempt at holding up a pharmacy using muskets, and the ensuing rapid-fire arguments that riffs on how the dysfunctional group barely manages to pull off its crimes. The film is at the height of its comedic and satirical powers when the gang is making its first splash into drug dealing, but becomes more conventional during its middle act. As the protagonists splurge on clothes, parties, and women, they get caught up in dicey circumstances, and it’s painfully obvious that the gang is heading to inevitable disaster. The final act features a complex plan to outwit rival dealers and the police that could use some deeper explanation. However, enough jokes and surprises are in the ending to keep audiences amused to the very final scene, and Pietro’s clever negotiations result in a weirdly happy conclusion for himself and his compatriots.
Characterization is impressively strong given the number of characters, but a weak link is Giulia, Pietro’s girlfriend. She is stuck in largely inactive roles with limited emotional range, grimacing and questioning Pietro about how he suddenly got so rich and why he rarely ever comes home. Her scenes with Pietro are some of the movie’s most tedious bits, and when she is kidnapped, she barely changes her facial expressions and tone of voice to match the gravity of the situation. Her place in the film is just to react instead of drive the plot, and the climax introduces a major antagonist previously discussed but never seen, which feels like too little, too late.
Despite these minor flaws, I Can Quit Whenever I Want delivers enough razor-sharp wit and creativity to stand out from most comedy films. There is talk of sequels, but considering how the film ends, it’s very hard to visualize what direction the sequels would go in. For viewers who want to see a humorous movie that also packs social commentary and insight into a foreign culture, this film is highly recommended.