It pains me to say these words about anything, but House of Gucci is begging to be a Ryan Murphy series. At least then we might actually know whether its frequent lurches into acidic camp were intentional. Ridley Scott’s film is a trashtacular watch that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. But it fails to settle on a consistent tone — overlong and undisciplined as it careens between high drama and opera buffa. “I had no idea I married a monster,” hisses Lady Gaga as the embittered Patrizia Reggiani, once her marriage to fashion scion Maurizio Gucci has soured. “You didn’t,” shoots back Adam Driver in the latter role. “You married a Gucci.”
Snappy exchanges like that one recall the gloriously hoary 1980s heyday of Dynasty, when the emotions were as big as the shoulder pads and hair, and the tawdry goings-on behind the wealth and glambition of a family business empire provided outrageous plot fodder. The difference here is that the seedy saga of love, betrayal and murder is based on fact. But any pathos suggested by the true-story stamp gets lost in sloppy execution. Scott returns to similar territory of dynastic wealth, sordid crime and an Italian setting just four years after All the Money in the World, which was stolid but at least competent. This time he seems to be directing by numbers.
House of Gucci
Overcooked pasta, smothered in sauce.
Say what you will about the Ryan Murphy factory, but at least he dives in with an unstinting commitment to lurid excess, making him an ideal fit for real-life stories of murder most foul and fashionable. (Just watch the insane Judith Light episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace for a prime example.) Scott seems oddly unsure of himself here, not helped by the clunky dialogue of Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna’s pedestrian script. Nor possibly by the challenges of shooting a decades-spanning, globe-trotting ensemble drama during a pandemic. Even less so by a cast with little cohesion but no shortage of scenery chompers.
Alongside the inevitably fabulous period costume and production design, the high point is Gaga’s full-tilt performance, even — or perhaps especially — when she morphs into Steven Van Zandt on The Sopranos while ordering a hit on her estranged husband. (My partner has been narrowing his eyes and pointing a finger at me, snarling, “Don’t meese” ever since the trailer dropped.)
In a performance more often than not dialed up to 110, Gaga puts on a transfixing show, bringing fierce charisma and ferocious drive to Patrizia, an accountant at her family’s trucking company who married Maurizio Gucci in 1972 and had him gunned down by a hitman in 1995. Even when she’s just lighting a cigarette or stirring an espresso, Gaga hurls herself into the character with savage gusto. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie bristles with electricity. By contrast, Driver — in his second consecutive project for Scott after The Last Duel — is quite subdued, crafting a complex character by more nuanced means. That puts the two leads pretty much in different movies.
Then there are the supporting players, led by Jeremy Irons as Maurizio’s suave snob of a father, the former actor Rodolfo, with an accent that drifts between Italian and standard Oxbridge. On quite another level is the prosciutto face-off between Al Pacino and Jared Leto as Maurizio’s exuberant Uncle Aldo and his idiot son Paolo, respectively. Leto wins that contest by a mile with a clownish fat-suit-and-prosthetics performance that’s simply astonishing. And not in a good way. “My life has been hard, really hard. I haven’t sheet in a week,” he whines, in a line not untypical of a character who seems obsessed with defecation. “Never confuse sheet with cioccolato,” he notes later, apropos of what, I couldn’t say.
I guess Gaga and Pacino can play the Italian American card, but really, House of Gucci should carry the equivalent of an animal welfare disclaimer, stating: “No Italians were involved in the making of this film.” It’s a hellhole of wobbly accents.
That said, it’s never more fun than when Gaga’s Patrizia is scheming with her friend Pina (Salma Hayek), a low-rent TV psychic and cat lady, to claw back her dwindling influence within the Gucci family and, eventually, to ice Maurizio. Their spa-day scene, in which grave matters are discussed in mud baths, is a hoot. “When we get back from the Caymans, we can do a nice evil eye on him,” suggests Pina, initially trying to put the brakes on the murder plan. The delicious inside joke of Hayek being married to François-Henri Pinault — CEO of Kering, the French luxury fashion conglomerate that now controls Gucci — will escape no one.
From her first appearance, it’s clear the movie belongs to Gaga as Patrizia sashays across her father’s trucking depot toward the office, poured into a snug dress and heels, soaking up the wolf whistles and leering comments of the drivers with evident pleasure. She meets Maurizio at a ritzy party in disco-era Milan and has stars in her eyes the minute she hears his surname.
She sets about putting herself in his path so often that he’s forced to ask her out; before long he’s introducing her to papà, Rodolfo, son of the fashion house founder Guccio Gucci. She can’t tell a Klimt from a Picasso, but Rodolfo finds Patrizia charming until Maurizio starts talking marriage, at which point he’s promptly disowned.
Based on Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book of the same name, the script is reasonably sharp in exploring matters of class, exposing the Gucci clan as self-appointed royalty rather than legitimate aristocracy. Rodolfo finds Patrizia acceptable as a plaything for his son, but immediately judges her to be a gold digger when Maurizio ushers her into the family. That happens in a cheeky cut from the two of them madly humping on Patrizia’s office desk to her walking down the aisle in an elaborate bridal gown, mystifyingly accompanied by George Michael’s “Faith.” Because it’s a Catholic wedding, maybe?
In Driver’s restrained performance — either elegantly reserved or cagey, depending how you see him — we get intimate psychological access to Maurizio as the passion of the early years subsides and Patrizia’s vulgarity starts to chafe. This is notable in a ski resort scene in St. Moritz with his rich friends, including the woman who would replace Patrizia, Paola Franchi (Camille Cottin). The ultimate slap in the face comes when he gives Patrizia a Bloomingdale’s gift card for Christmas. Ouch. More of that kind of sly humor might have given the film some satirical bite.
Long before the cracks in their marriage become irreparable, Patrizia pushes Maurizio to overcome his ambivalence about joining the family firm, mending the rift with his father just in time to nab the old man’s majority stake in the company, albeit with some shifty moves. At first, she finds an ally in company chairman Uncle Aldo, as they zip back and forth between Milan and New York; and she manages to work around gauche dimwit Paolo, who has delusions of being a visionary designer. But when the two of them get in the way of Maurizio’s control, Patrizia declares, “It’s time to take out the trash.”
What she hasn’t accounted for is snake-in-the-grass family lawyer Domenico De Sole, an underwritten role in which Jack Huston barely registers — except to the extent that he resembles Tom Ford way more than does Reeve Carney, who briefly turns up in that role.
In the aforementioned St. Moritz scene, Patrizia responds to a question about the meringue treats she’s brought with a rambling monologue about a Paris trip with Maurizio. “You’re filling the story full of unnecessary details,” he tells her in a cutting dismissal. “They just want to know where you got the macaroons, sweetie.” In a sense that’s what Johnson and Bentivegna’s screenplay does. Given that this is a movie and not an ’80s miniseries, it’s too cluttered with busy plot tangents that keep taking us away from the macaroon of Patrizia and Maurizio’s crumbling relationship. Or maybe it’s just that the film’s energy plummets whenever Gaga’s off-camera.
Sure, it’s moderately interesting to learn of Aldo’s tax-evasion travails and the corporate chicanery that nudges him and Paolo out of the company when Maurizio partners with Bahrain finance group Investcorp. But Scott can’t squeeze much dramatic juice out of these developments. The same goes for the makeover after Gucci has become démodé and Texan wunderkind Ford (Carney) is brought in to revolutionize the house style — complete with a mercifully brief appearance from a bad Anna Wintour impersonator.
Despite frantic snatches of opera lobbed in among the random ’80s tracks by Eurythmics, David Bowie, Donna Summer, Blondie, etc., a sluggishness frequently creeps into the film, even when it should be gathering suspense as the anticipated (and anticlimactic) shooting of Maurizio approaches. Scott, who was first attached to the project in 2006, seems convinced he’s making something akin to The Godfather. But instead the action keeps sliding into inadvertent campiness, never more so than when Patrizia and Pina are negotiating with the hitmen.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski mixes glitz with a faded period look to underwhelming effect, but Arthur Max’s production design and Janty Yates’ costumes provide plenty of lavish detail. As does Gaga, who commands attention in a vehicle much more solely dependent on her than A Star Is Born, where the spotlight was shared equally with Bradley Cooper. Her work here may be chewy, but she’s enthrallingly alive in the role, bringing heat to Patrizia’s hunger and growing desperation in an otherwise muddled movie that seldom ignites.