House of Gucci (2021)

Dir. Ridley Scott. Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino

Spoilers for a recent release.

Tempting as it is to begin with the accent work in this movie, I think it’s more revealing to begin with Dariusz Wolski’s photography. House of Gucci is shot in most of the same washed-out tones that one comes to expect from Wolski, and that quality in the film feels appropriate to me. In the same way that Wolski’s work on News of the World depicts a weary postbellum West lacking vitality, the overcast gray that dominates House of Gucci is working in much the same way. Gucci is falling behind rivals in the Italian fashion world, stuck with classy but staid styles because its leadership is classy but staid. The company is owned by the family still, with half of the stock lying with the businessman, Aldo (Pacino) and the other with the fey, distant ex-actor, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons). What follows in all these gray tones is a succession story, the way that Rodolfo’s son Maurizio (Driver) wrests control of the business from Aldo and his son Paolo (Jared Leto) and then goes on to reform the company in a more modern image while also using it as a personal slush fund. Scott is not making a modern camp classic, no matter how loud the performances are or how subversively we might identify all this ugliness underneath all the haute couture. The brooding cinematography, which treats Milan and New York City the way that Stephanie Meyer treats Forks, tells us otherwise. This is the kind of movie that’s made with Oscars in mind, not the kind of thing that would have played at midnight, and no matter how tempting it is to crown Lady Gaga’s new rendition of the Sign of the Cross (Father, Son, House of Gucci) to be a way into a camp interpretation, there’s more than a gif’s length of film in pallid tones which suggest the film’s got something else on its mind. Take, for example, some of the worst soundtrack decisions I’ve heard in years. Everything is either on Baby’s First 25 Opera Melodies or it’s grabbed straight from I Love the ’80s. There’s no creativity in these choices, just instantly recognizable stuff that’s do the work of bringing us what we already know without relying on stuff like “the screenplay” or “the direction” to do it for us. Hanlon’s razor warns us not to attribute to malice what we can attribute to stupidity. If I may be so bold, what we might call Murphy’s razor warns us not to attribute to camp what we can attribute to a lust for industry recognition.

I have managed to save the accent work, such as it is, for the second paragraph; I am a man of tremendous self-control. “Work” is sort of a strong word for what the actors in this movie are doing. Most of it is more along the lines of this Elon Musk-inspired tweet you’ve seen before:

There’s a line in this movie that Jared Leto has about soaring like a pigeon, and a couple of instances where he pronounces “mouse” as “moose.” Sometimes people in this movie will actually speak enough Italian to be subtitled, and at that point I felt like I’d been conked on the head: was I supposed to assume all of these conversations between Italians were spoken in English with heavy Italian accents? About two hours into the movie I started to wonder if I should start feeling offended for my Italian relatives, the nation of Italy, Leonardo da Vinci, Gianluigi Buffon, you know, the usual suspects. Not all of it is so awful. I mean, I won’t pretend that I have any idea what Jared Leto is doing or why he’s doing it, because I don’t want to give him the satisfaction. But Pacino and Driver are both doing relatively normal accent work, if a little creaky; Irons sounds too much like himself no matter what, but has some decent moments in short statements. The champion of actually good accent work in this film is probably Jack Huston, playing lawyer and businessman Domenico De Sole behind a very accessible accent and a very meticulous beard. The difference is that I don’t think anyone is likely to prop up Huston for an Oscar nomination, though there’s a reasonable argument to be made that he’s giving the film’s best performance, quiet and tricky and conservative.

Looking at the film’s other gaps, the accents are basically just hairography for the almost total dearth of character development. House of Gucci is filled with so many machinations, so many hamfisted grabs at the throne, and to its credit it makes sense what those actual machinations are. It’s not subtle about how Paolo has serious financial trouble, or how Aldo has a yen for tax evasion, or how Maurizio woos an Iraqi gazillionaire, Nemir Kirdar (Youssef Kerkour), with shoes that cannot be bought. There are just enough players and just enough history that this could be more confusing than it is presented to be, and that’s only a qualified success. House of Gucci is much more interested in the rebirth of the company under Tom Ford (Reeve Carney)—who gets the kind of mysterious introduction for those in the know which is fanservice for the kind of people who snarf down music biopics—than it is in the collapsed marriage of Maurizio and Patrizia. This would not be so bad, I guess, but seeing as Patrizia’s plots are the driving force for the film, it makes what might have been a reasonably interesting story about Gucci reestablishing itself into pure flab. What the film doesn’t seem to be all that interested in is how its characters change over time, a failure which makes the straight arrow plot far less of a success. What makes Patrizia (Lady Gaga) turn from a basically normal woman to someone planning to murder her estranged husband? What changes in Maurizio to turn him from a law student who cares little for his family business to a man who is as extravagant as his uncle and as ruthless as his wife? It’s an incredible mystery, and if the answer is as simple as “wealth corrupts,” then even that answer is incomplete. Maurizio grows up in incredible comfort and then decides he wants to run away from it before being reeled back in by Aldo, who reappears with great suddenness in Maurizio’s life. Even more confusing is Patrizia, who gets a taste for backchanneling and backstabbing that’s appreciable. But no amount of Lady Gaga bugeyes can make up for how rapidly Patrizia accelerates from mere histrionics to psychosis, and the movie does itself no favors by deciding that Maurizio is the more interesting character once he starts drawing the big salary. It’s too bad, because Driver is actually giving a fairly interesting performance. It’s not through any kind of writing or even interaction that we begin to understand that there’s a malice within Maurizio, but it’s almost entirely done through shots of Driver on his own, speaking quietly or making hard faces. The front end of Driver’s career has been defined by louder roles than this one, whether we’re going blockbuster like his Kylo Ren work or more artsy, like Marriage Story or Annette. For the best, Driver is much more like the version of him that we see in Paterson or The Report here, a little bit more inside himself, using smaller moments to build the character rather than throwing a seventy-yard pass downfield like his wall-smashing scene from Marriage Story. I still struggle to understand why Maurizio is doing what he’s doing once we hit the halfway point, but it’s hard to pin that on Driver.

Anyone who’s explicitly there in a supporting capacity is more compelling than someone who’s supposed to be a protagonist in this film. This is only faint praise; House of Gucci struggles to flesh people out further than a first or second impression. I liked Irons quite a bit in this movie as the snobbish nouveau riche Rodolfo, a Milanese Norma Desmond who surrounds himself with hanging filmstrips the same way a Gucci store might hang belts. He is instantly suspicious of Patrizia, and of course he’s proven right over the course of the film, but what makes him right is never really delved into. Rodolfo could be right about Patrizia because he’s witnessed this kind of behavior before as an actor on the set, or he could be right because women have attached themselves to him for his money, or he could be right because as someone who grew up rich because of a successful father, he is not so far removed from a would-be social climber like Patrizia himself. The film doesn’t really get into it, which is a shame, because it would add even more density to a role that Irons is naturally appending some gravity to. But because Rodolfo is dead faster than someone as uninitiated as myself would expect, it doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things. To some extent, that’s true of Paolo as well. If nothing else, Leto certainly plays his man like the true idiot that everyone else insists he is, the world’s loudest mime crashing most spectacularly into walls of his own making. The trouble is that Irons’ three or four scenes as a snob (outfitted in one of them with like, a cape, what a prince) have basically nothing to do with the Game of Thrones infighting that comes to dominate the movie to its own detriment. Paolo’s idiocy becomes a significant plot point and is not limited to a couple of tasty scenes like the ones Rodolfo has. One begins to hope for some depth in, heaven help us, a guy Jared Leto is playing, and it’s practically self-evident that there aren’t going to be any answers once we get there.

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