THE STORY – When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel the family legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge — and ultimately murder.
THE CAST – Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek & Al Pacino
THE TEAM – Ridley Scott (Director), Becky Johnston & Roberto Bentivegna (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 157 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
A dark-haired woman in drop-dead oversized sunglasses and a brown fur coat over a blazing red dress slowly struts to the camera and pushes the glasses down to glare over the top as Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” shimmers on the soundtrack. It’s one of the most instantly iconic images of the year, from the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” released over the summer a good four months before anyone saw the film. That trailer caused a firestorm of excitement for the film, as it seemed to tap into something with just enough camp value in its images and catchphrases (“Father, Son, and the House of Gucci” sure is an all-timer) to become a viral sensation. The marketing campaign for “House of Gucci” has been impeccable, selling the film as a roller coaster ride of intrigue in the world of high fashion, performed by a ridiculously stacked A-List cast: Driver. Gaga. Leto. Pacino. Hayek. Irons. It’s exactly the kind of push one would expect for a big-budget Thanksgiving release aiming for box office success and Academy Awards. But a film is not its marketing campaign, and while “House of Gucci” certainly has plenty of highly meme-able moments, it, unfortunately, does not hold together as a film, caught in a no man’s land between campy excess and serious drama.
In the early 1970s, Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga) meets Maurizio Gucci (Driver) at a costume party. She mistakes him for a bartender, but he makes her a drink anyway. She finds him intriguing, but her entire demeanor changes when he finally introduces himself with his full name. They dance the night away together, and she later seeks him out to run into him “accidentally.” When Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Irons) refuses to give his blessing to the couple, not incorrectly believing that Patrizia only has eyes for Maurizio’s wealth, Maurizio moves in with her and her family and gets a job at her father’s truck driving business while he finishes law school. This first part of the film plays everything mostly straight, leaving it to Gaga and Driver to sell the relationship, which they do with gusto. Their chemistry is on point, Maurizio’s slow-blooming infatuation with Patrizia perfectly believable as she walks a very fine line between loving him for his name and loving him for the person he actually is. Both characters feel real and relatable in a way that makes this opening act a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of movie left after that, and the tonal inconsistencies that seem minor here (a too on-the-nose music cut here, an over-the-top sex scene there) are only just starting to make themselves known.
Soon enough, we get introduced to Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Pacino) and cousin Paolo (Leto), a pair of Italian stereotypes who chew so much scenery that you’d think the film’s sets were made of gabagool. It is at this point that “House of Gucci” begins to fall apart. It becomes clear that this is actually two completely separate films that Scott is trying his damndest to fit together. On one side, you have a richly appointed, fashion-world spin on “The Godfather,” with Pacino relishing the opportunity to play a gregarious Italian man who plays with his finances like a gangster but isn’t actually a mafioso, Gaga getting a taste of the luxurious lifestyle of the family business and sinking her teeth in like a vampire, and Driver caught in a tug-of-war for his soul. On the other side, you have a self-consciously campy spin on mob movie tropes and woman-done-wrong marital dramas with Gaga indulging in her broadest impulses and still getting acted off the screen by Leto’s deliriously undisciplined over the top turn. In fairness, both of these movies could be good on their own. Each is entertaining in its own way, and audiences will surely be divided over which half of the film they prefer. But sitting next to each other in the same movie, they both seem worse than they would on their own. The campy scenes make the straight drama scenes feel under-energized and dull, while the straight drama scenes make the campy scenes feel over the top and unintentionally hilarious.
Scott’s inability to weld these two wildly divergent tones together is partially a problem of the screenplay and partly a problem of his own making. Handed a real-life story with enough drama to fill a whole television miniseries (the film is based on Sara Gay Forden’s aptly-titled book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed”), screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna have tried to capture the ridiculousness of the story in their dialogue. Not all of that dialogue had to be played for camp value, but the potential is certainly there. Scott and/or some of the performers guessed (not incorrectly) that something had to be done to liven up the film, which for the most part just sits there like a limp piece of linguini and chooses to dial certain characters and moments up to 11. If the whole film had followed suit, this could have been a madly entertaining piece of high-glamour camp, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 50s and 60s. Leto, in particular, goes so far over the top that he may never find the ground again, burying himself under pounds of makeup and an accent as thick as one of Nonna’s homemade meatballs. He has so much personality that he practically rewrites every scene in which he appears to be entirely about him, and it’s incredibly entertaining. Next to him, the sentient ham Pacino looks like a model of restraint, but the veteran scene-stealer knows precisely what he’s doing, leaning into the stereotype without turning Aldo into a complete caricature. He’s having fun, and that fun is infectious. Unfortunately, it’s so infectious that whenever he’s not onscreen, the film suffers a bit.
The film also suffers a bit because Maurizio and Patrizia, the main characters of the film, are the worst written of the lot. Patrizia has a more complete arc, but she sits at the exact intersection of the film’s two halves, and Scott has failed to modulate Gaga’s performance properly. Gaga is fully committed to the role, and she finds all the different shades of Patrizia’s ambition, always keeping the audience on its toes. But in the scenes where she has the most ridiculous, campy dialogue, she’s trying to match the energy that Leto gives in his scenes, turning Patrizia from a real person into a caricature of an Italian woman scorned. For his part, Driver does solid work all around. He’s perfectly affable in the early scenes, and he’s a slickly powerful businessman in the later scenes. The problem, though, is that Maurizio’s arc is somewhat non-existent. Early scenes mix his love for Patrizia with concern about her aggressiveness very well, but somewhere along the way, there’s a breaking point, and neither Driver nor the screenplay articulate when it is or why it comes. To be sure, Patrizia herself must have felt that it came out of nowhere, but the film isn’t told exclusively from her point of view, so that shouldn’t be the reason for Maurizio’s character arc to be missing such a significant slice. But missing it is, and while Driver’s charisma can carry a lot, it cannot quite fill such a gaping hole.
It’s a pity, really. All the elements are present for “House of Gucci” to be a ridiculously satisfying piece of prestige Hollywood entertainment, but Scott’s uncertain handling of tone undercuts the film at every turn. The lead characters’ underwritten arcs leave the drama stately but unsatisfying, and while the over-the-top performances and on-the-nose needle drops are undeniably entertaining, these overdone elements sit so awkwardly next to the more straightforwardly serious components that they come across as hilarious in a bad way. The film’s focus on surfaces – glamorous clothes, luxurious apartments, overdone hair and makeup – and the frivolity of upper-class society give the film an aura of middlebrow pretentiousness that actually does line up with one of Susan Sontag’s defining elements of camp, namely a seriousness that is completely unaware of how it comes across. It’s “low” art that deeply believes in its status as “high” art. In trying to split the difference between self-conscious camp and high-styled seriousness, Scott may have inadvertently created something that is camp, but not in the way he intended. With a surer directorial hand, “House of Gucci” could have really been something special. As it is, it’s not focused enough to be entertaining in anything more than sporadic scenes, and frankly, the audience deserves more than that.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Moments of over-the-top performance and soundtrack choices provide some primo old-fashioned, glamorous Hollywood entertainment…
THE BAD – …but everything in between those moments is an uneven slog. Feels like two different films uneasily stitched together.
THE OSCARS – Best Makeup & Hairstyling (Nominated)