Lady Gaga blows a potential dud of a movie straight into the stratosphere.
I’ve tried for days now to decide exactly when my soul left my body and ascended to paradise during my House of Gucci screening. Looking through my increasingly loopy notes, it appears it was when Jared Leto, playing paunchy middle-aged failson Paolo Gucci, declares to his cousin-in-law Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga — we’ll get to her in a moment), with so very much pathos, that he “was-a in-a bed, with a bowl-a of gelato cioccolata, and-a very dark-a thoughts.” If you read that in the voice of an American pasta sauce ad, you did it right.
What even is this movie? An image tweeted from the set last March — featuring Gaga and co-star Adam Driver in cable-knit sweaters, him decked out in huge glasses and her in a towering furry hat, standing against a snowy backdrop — lit a pandemic-crazed Twitter ablaze. Then the trailer dropped in July, and … well, I mean, just go watch it. It’s exquisite.
The movie the trailer is selling is actually a little more dishy and wild than the real House of Gucci, which would be a pointless and somewhat perfunctory dud if it weren’t for the brilliance, or madness, of the performances. Screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna crafted the tale of the murder of Maurizio Gucci (Driver), based on the book by Sara Gay Forden, into a kind of rags-to-riches story crossed with some serious Machiavelli vibes, but the psychological reality never quite lands. Ridley Scott, who seems to have slid joyfully into his “I’m 83, why wouldn’t I make this movie” phase, settled into the director’s chair and proceeded to direct the daylights out of his cast.
That cast: Gaga, Driver, Leto, plus Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino as the Gucci patriarchs and Salma Hayek in a bit part as a psychic. (This doesn’t matter, but I can’t stop thinking about it: Hayek is married to François-Henri Pinault, the chairman and CEO of luxury fashion group Kering, which owns, among other things, Gucci.) Look, when you’re Ridley Scott, you get the cast you want.
As you may have noticed, none of these people (well, okay, half-credit to iconic Italian Americans Pacino and Gaga) are actually from Italy, despite playing some very famous people who were. The movie is not in Italian; it’s in English, and everyone is doing some degree of an accent. Irons and Driver are fine. Gaga is going for it (though there’s some debate over whether or not she actually sounds Russian). Leto is absurd. Pacino is kind of half-assing the accent, but this does not matter when you are Al Pacino. They drink espresso and dance in clubs and moon around giant estates arguing about who is a disappointment to the family — basic rich people activities.
Actually, Rich People Activities would have been a decent working title for the film, which never really finds a way to make us care about the characters outside of the people playing them. From the first scene, we know that this is a movie about how Maurizio Gucci was murdered, which happened on March 27, 1995, on the steps of his office in Milan. But Gaga plays Patrizia, his wife, and the story is really about her.
And how. Patrizia is a ball of fire from the moment we meet her, swaying through the parking lot of her family business as the men hoot catcalls in her direction. She meets Maurizio at a party, by chance, and charms him enough that he’s willing to give up his place in his family’s lucrative fashion business, to the angst of his actor father Rodolfo Gucci (Irons), to be with her. All of which is fine, for a time, but Patrizia gets tired of being poor for no reason, and works Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Pacino), who runs the business, to get her beloved husband back in the door. Luckily, Aldo’s son Paolo (Leto), whose wild ideas about fashion are not in keeping with the elder generation’s image of Gucci, is what Rodolfo calls “a triumph of mediocrity,” and Aldo is more than happy to invest his trust in his nephew instead.
House of Gucci spans decades, during which Patrizia and Maurizio go through an awful lot together. Yet somehow, despite running nearly three hours long, the film never really gets a grip on its characters’ motivations or psychology (with the possible exception of sad sack Paolo). They’re characters in a stock play, reenacting a tale that’s already been told. You can imagine a version of this made by Ryan Murphy, which would be both worse and more legible, emotionally, to the audience.
On the other hand, who cares? House of Gucci is probably the funniest comedy and dopiest tragedy of the year. Everyone chomps on the scenery. (Driver is, somehow, the most boring person in the movie.) People deliver frankly preposterous lines; Paolo replies to everything with melodically delivered nonsense, like “does an elephant-a sheeeet in the jungle?” or “I will finally soar, like a pigeon!” Aldo arrives to meet with his brother Rodolfo and finds him on the back terrace, staring into the distance, with the world’s biggest, camel-colored, presumably cashmere scarf flung dramatically around his neck. I couldn’t stop laughing.
And at the center of it all is Gaga’s Patrizia, who Maurizio declares is a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. (You can kind of see his point.) She schemes, she cries, she makes decisions Maurizio’s too spineless to make himself. She calls a psychic on TV and becomes her best friend. She strokes Paolo’s ego and stabs him in the back. Gaga climbs inside the skin of — if not the real Patrizia — a fantastical approximation who smokes like a chimney, narrows her eyes till you expect lasers to shoot out, and turns every single scene she appears in into a grand, glorious showcase. Her hand gestures alone are worthy of close reading. She’s Lady Macbeth as diva, darling, and dancing queen.
So if the story never lands — why should I care about the Guccis? why doesn’t Ridley Scott appear to care at all about fashion, even a little? — it basically doesn’t matter because each new scene is a fresh chance to watch some performers cram ham into a camp sandwich and then have another espresso.
It’s become fashionable for critics and the ill-informed alike to declare that they don’t make movies like this anymore. I rarely buy it; usually, if you’re saying it, you simply aren’t looking hard enough.
But in this case, okay, I buy it. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Ridley Scott managing to get the budget, cast, and runtime to make a three-ring circus like House of Gucci for the big screen, a drama for adults that doesn’t lean on IP with a built-in fan base or effects-laden spectacle to suck audiences in. When he’s gone, hopefully at a time in the very distant future, I am worried this kind of movie will go with him.
For now, though, at least we have House of Gucci, the kind of movie where a woman can tell her husband “it’s time to take out the trash” and mean his family, a movie with multiple candlelit bathtub scenes, a film in which an entire scene is set to the sounds of “I’m a Believer” in Italian, where the imperfect is elevated to perfection. I left my screening elated and wanted to rewatch it immediately. Several times. Long live cinema.
House of Gucci opens in theaters on November 24.