The Pitch: On March 27, 1995, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), then head of the luxury fashion label Gucci, was shot dead on the steps outside his Milan office. Two years later, his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), and her accomplices were sentenced to prison, most of them for more than twenty-five-year sentences. But how did we get here? How did a woman who found herself at the top of the fashion world turn into a black widow? Ridley Scott‘s House of Gucci wants to answer those questions, with all the brio and style to which the Gucci name is accustomed.
We flash back to the early ’70s, where a young Patrizia meets and charms the bookish Maurizio, who wants less than nothing to do with the Gucci dynasty, considering his strained relationship with his ailing father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons). While he’s ready to give up the fortune and live as a noble pauper, Patrizia wants more for herself; she’ll find ways to pull string after string with Maurizio and his family members, including uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and cousin Paolo (Jared Leto), to get it. It’s a rags-to-riches-to-rags-and-back-again story, filtered through the furs and blazers and Italian leather of 1970s European pop culture, with a healthy dash of Dynasty thrown in.
Money (That’s What I Want): Watching House of Gucci (the second film Ridley Scott’s released this year, following the superlative The Last Duel), you’re reminded of Scott’s 2017 thriller All the Money in the World. Look past the behind-the-scenes story of Kevin Spacey being replaced by Christopher Plummer (and the latter getting an Oscar nom as a result), and you get yet another based-on-a-true-story account of the intersection between wealth, legacy, and crime. The Gettys and the Guccis are both dynasties, ones threatened with collapse by the vagaries of its greedier members, and threatened by the entrance of a fiery, independently-minded woman they don’t know what to do with.
But where Money kept it largely serious, letting its darkly comic cracks slip through piecemeal, Gucci leans much harder on its own self-styled silliness. The word “camp” may be misapplied here, but Scott and screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna (working from Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed) are certainly attuned to the larger-than-life characters at the center of this opulent drama.
Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography lingers over every thread of Janty Yates’ gaudy, retro-stylish costumes, which range from slinky silk dresses to puffy ski outfits; every performer blurts their lines in their best guess at an Italian accent, which ranges from Boris and Natasha (Gaga) to Count Dracula (Driver). Gaga and her accomplice (an overly-familiar fortune teller played by Salma Hayek) scheme while giving each other mud baths. A character opens their mouth in an anguished scream, only for the sound of a car horn to come out, ushering us into the next scene. It’s arch choices like this that make House of Gucci so much fun in fits and spurts.
Don’t Confuse Shit With Chocolate: The problem, then, comes with all the little moments in between, Scott remembering that he still has a story to tell among the isolated bits of outer fun he’s having with the extravagance of its luxury-fashion world. When Gucci sobers up (which is early and often over its lengthy two-and-a-half-hour runtime), it becomes a slog, having little of substance to say about this flighty tale of bickering fashion moguls. There’s a sense of the passing of trends over time, with Gucci becoming synonymous with cheap knock-off handbags before beginning its recovery in the mid-’90s with the arrival of Tom Ford (Reeve Carney), which has the potential to be interesting.
But it feels somewhat disconnected from Patrizia’s own machinations, especially in the latter act, when Maurizio gets wise to her and Gaga spends whole stretches of the movie in the periphery. The tone bounces between David Fincher and Ryan Murphy without a lot of balance, which keeps Gucci from holding up as a cohesive whole.
A Cast of Little Monsters: Still, it’s hard to deny the cast is having fun, and whether their performances are good or bad, they’re certainly unique. Gucci is undeniably Gaga’s show through and through, coming in with the kind of performance both meant to showcase her talent and to demonstrate her cultural supremacy as the next heir to Barbra Streisand or Elizabeth Taylor. From scene to scene, she certainly channels both of them, modulating between each depending on which emotional mode or stage in Patrizia’s life she’d like to explore.
Patrizia’s a master manipulator, the Lady Macbeth of this diamond-studded drama, using honey one minute and vinegar the next. That leaves plenty of chances to Go Big, and Gaga certainly takes them, especially as her and Maurizio’s marriage begins to sour and he begins pulling away from her, leaving her defensive and unloved. In the words of Glenn Close, she won’t be ignored. The wonky accent is almost a virtue, really; it makes her look frivolous at one angle, unpredictable the next as she furrows her brow or screams at the top of her lungs. Just as you try (and fail) to guess how she’ll say her next word, you have no idea what Patrizia will do next, even as the script telegraphs it from a mile away.
Driver, on the other hand, feels a bit lost at sea, his meek, self-serious Maurizio saddled with the unfortunate task of closing off where Patrizia explodes with energy. He’s most potent in the last act, where he finally becomes the power-hungry monster he’d been trying to run away from his whole life, but it pales next to the rest of the cast. Pacino, in particular, whose Aldo best threads the needle between both of the films Gucci is trying to be — a man animated by success whose awareness of the business makes him too dangerous for Patrizia to keep around.
At the other end of the spectrum is Leto, giving the performance of several lifetimes as the goofy Fredo of the family, portly Paolo. “A triumph of mediocrity,” Rodolfo calls him, and he’s right: With his crown of shaggy grey hair and droopy face (Leto’s chiseled matinee-idol face hidden under reams of uncanny prosthetics), Paolo cries and gurns his way through the movie in an accent that sounds like Super Mario doing a Borat impression on helium.
It’s a perfectly-calibrated Bad Performance, the kind you can’t take your eyes off; he’s the sad clown who represents the inbred rot at the center of Gucci, the most easily-identifiable scab Fabrizia will pick at to find the family’s weaknesses. For as baffling as Leto’s performance is, I kinda wanted Gucci to have this devil-may-care energy all the way through. As is, he feels dropped in from another, more fun dimension.
The Verdict: It’s tempting to try to yassssss and Z-snap your way through House of Gucci, considering the meme-ific marketing campaign surrounding Gaga’s involvement and the innate spectacle of its camp aspirations. (Gaga crossing herself and purring “Father, Son, House of Gucci” is sure to be a queer slogan for a good long time.) But the frustrating thing about Scott’s film is the way its bloated runtime lolls between two modes that mix like oil and water. There’s the layered meditation on power and money corrupting everything, even love, and there’s the OTT Ryan Murphy pastiche that turns its style porn and kooky characters up to eleven. But never the twain shall meet.
By all means, watch it for Gaga doing The Most, or Leto pulling out the most eye-poppingly bad performance of the year with every falsetto lilt of his voice. But be ready for Gucci to try in vain to steady the ship and Get Serious about the all-consuming power of greed, and to yawn when those moments seem to linger too long. Believe me, I wish House of Gucci had a greater share of Lady Gaga death stares and pointed sips of espresso.
Where’s It Playing? House of Gucci serves up a nice thick slice of Italian ham (prosciutto?) in theaters for Thanksgiving, November 24th.