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House of Gucci Should Have Been Campier — and More Scathing

Lady Gaga captures every scene in House of Gucci, and she’s backed up by a stellar supporting cast. But the film somehow ends up going far too soft on the Gucci family’s absolute sociopathy and appallingly hideous clothes.

Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci. (MGM)

Director Ridley Scott sets such a ponderous pace with his new film House of Gucci, and adopts such a glacial, heavy, “classy” approach in general, it’s quite confusing.

He’s claiming in interviews that the film is a satire, “and satire is a posh way of saying it’s a comedy.” We can all agree that Jared Leto in a secondary role brings the comedy relief whenever his unrecognizably plump, balding, would-be fashion designer character Paolo Gucci is on the screen hoping to “soar like a pigeon.” But if the movie as a whole is a comedy, the leaden tempo and generally brooding tone are even more puzzling.

Scott has been promoting the movie in such addled interviews, we can’t look to him for any persuasive insight into what he thinks he was doing, as he shoots his mouth off in the stupidest way possible to anyone who puts a microphone in front of him. You’ve probably heard about his blaming the colossal failure of his other movie this year, The Last Duel — which looked ludicrous — on millennials, whose addiction to their cell phones apparently prevents them from wanting to go see period films that supposedly teach us history. Scott said incoherently on Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, “The millenians [sic] do not want to ever be taught anything unless you’re told it on the cell phone.”

Scott has also been entertaining idiot-watchers all over the world by replying to the protests of the Gucci family over the way they’re portrayed in the film. Did Scott expect them to be pleased by this adaptation of Sarah Gay Forden’s 2001 book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed, which represents them as a festering clan of modern Borgias whose scheming disloyalty and cutthroat shenanigans managed to get them all pushed out of the billion-dollar business that bears their family name? Scott says the Guccis have been “alarmingly insulting,” adding that “you should be so fucking lucky” as to have such fine actors as Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Adam Driver portray your family’s nasty, blundering downfall.

Best guess: the director of The Duellists (1977), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Thelma & Louise (1991) has long since entered his dotage. How are the mighty fallen! It’s useless to consult him on his aims as long as he’s to try to pull off pious nonsense like, “I tried to be as respectful [to the Guccis] as possible by being as factual as possible.”

Respect has nothing to do with this movie, nor should it. In fact, I wish it had been ten times more scathing about the Guccis, who seem to be vicious capitalist scum from top to bottom of the family tree.

The trailer promised a spirited camp classic of lurid plotting and messy betrayals, full of soap opera one-liners like the one Lady Gaga says in her thickest Italian accent as the darkly manipulative Patrizia Reggiani, while stirring her après-ski espresso and trying to figure out how to get rid of her husband’s new girlfriend: “I don’t claim to be a particularly ethical person, but I am fair.

Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci. (MGM)

But that’s the magic of editing, tightening up the material and making it pop. Marketing teams are sadly better at this than many top Hollywood directors.

The film is centered on the rise and fall of Reggiani, daughter of a trucking company owner, who by marrying Gucci scion Maurizio (Adam Driver) places herself at the center of a great fortune, a fashion house, and a made-up noble lineage. Her voice-over narration at the beginning of the film, crooning over the “sweetness” of the name Gucci and all the wealth and power it represents, establishes it as her story, and it’s her final act of vengeful annihilation that ends the film, as well as any family participation in the business, which rocks on profitably without them.

It seems Lady Gaga spent eighteen months in character as Patrizia, which is surprising, because I’d have sworn she carried the whole thing off through sheer performing-veteran charisma. She’s practically the whole show, striding around furiously in tight dresses and spike heels and big hair that seems to get bigger and blacker the more double crosses she pulls. When she’s off-screen, there’s a notable sense of deflation.

As with Gaga’s film debut as the lead in the latest version of A Star Is Born (2018), it’s not clear if she’s a good actor or just a film presence with a whole lot of pizzazz. She’s got arresting looks on film, beautiful from one angle and almost ugly from the next, but the sheer changeability of her face is remarkable.

And she’s got a lot of competition in scene-stealing in House of Gucci. Adam Driver is always highly watchable, but he’s hampered by his role as the stiff, constrained dork Maurizio, who’s a lawyer and supposedly the brains of the younger generation of the Gucci family but doesn’t do much to show it. Jeremy Irons is typecast as Maurizio’s sickly, decadent, fake-aristocratic father, Rodolfo, who temporarily disowns him for marrying such a manifest gold digger. Al Pacino brings exaggerated brio and humor to his role of the shrewd Uncle Aldo, who’s ruined the Gucci reputation in high fashion circles but kept the money rolling in by capitalizing on cheap Gucci knockoffs selling on every street corner.

And then there’s Aldo’s pudgy, pitiful son Pablo (Jared Leto), whose delusional conviction is that he’s a talented fashion designer and would be a huge success if only the family would give him a chance. This causes Aldo to say, in his kindest assessment of his son, “He’s an idiot, but he’s my idiot.”

Leto is practically talking like “That’s a spicy meata-balla” in his efforts to be outrageously comic-Italian and earn an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Given all that ham-actor rivalry, it’s amazing how successfully Lady Gaga holds the screen.

But then, for sheer fascination, it’s hard to beat anyone playing the Lady Macbeth role. She targets Maurizio as soon as she hears his magical surname, “Gucci,” seduces him, enthralls him sexually, and marries him over family objections that leave his half of the church empty at their wedding. Though he claims he’s never been happier than when working at her father’s trucking company, she makes sure the Gucci family heals the breach before his father dies, so Maurizio inherits a 50 percent share of the Gucci fortune and business. She begins her ruthless management of the Gucci empire by manipulating the weak-willed Maurizio to shaft various relatives. And he begins to hate her for it.

Lady Gaga and Adam Driver in House of Gucci. (MGM)

That’s why it’s so weird that, just as Patrizia is going mad with thwarted ambition and therefore getting more and more interesting to watch, she disappears from the narrative for long sequences. Some feature just Maurizio with his new girlfriend, Paola Franchi (Camille Cottin). She’s an old-money friend: blonde, thin, “classy,” and as inclined to wear all white as he is.

Particularly with Maurizio, there’s a strong tendency to present himself as a figure of almost disinterested virtue, the only one of the family that admits to the working-class origins of their fortune — which began with an enterprising bellhop studying the luggage of the wealthy staying at the hotel where he worked, so he could open his own luggage shop. And he’s the only one who tries to break away from the corrosive effects of Gucci wealth.

As he weakens and succumbs to it through Patrizia’s influence, the color white represents his ongoing desire to rise above the obvious corruption of his family and business partners. The dark, curvy, manifestly sexual, social-climbing Patrizia favors black and lurid red with heavy gold jewelry, and that tainted, all-too-readable image explains his haste to kick her to the curb.

Costumes and production design are needed to explain him, because Maurizio remains a somewhat opaque character. For example, why does he go on a sudden, insane, bankrupting spending spree with Paola, which seems entirely out of character for both of them? We don’t know.

So we watch them buying ridiculously expensive stuff, or we see other Gucci family members messing about somewhere, and there are long, fateful meetings with unpleasant-looking businessmen who get an awful lot of attention that they don’t really merit in terms of emotional impact or revelatory insight in the film.

As Patrizia gets increasingly cut out of the family doings, the interest level in the fate of the Guccis slackens. She gets a few nicely cracked scenes with her psychic, Giuseppina (Salma Hayek), but we’re only told later that Patrizia has been stalking Maurizio for months. We get one split-second shot of this, at a crucial fashion show featuring the new Gucci line created by designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney). Strobe lights give us an almost subliminal glimpse of an enraged Patrizia standing at the back, and that’s it.

How could you not shoot ever wilder scenes of the maddened Patrizia stalking Maurizio all over New York City? Apparently that went on for six years before she took — spoiler! — decisive action.

And when it comes to movies having to do with fashion, this film is truly lacking, so don’t watch it expecting to revel in stunning shots of fine-quality clothing, shoes, accessories, and leather goods. The same Ridley Scott who started off his career shooting posh advertisements doesn’t create a single memorable image of a Gucci product. Even the vintage maroon loafers featured in one scene that are supposedly a priceless Gucci museum piece — so impressive when given as a gift that they turn a failing billion-dollar business deal into a sudden success — look like crap you could buy at any mall.

Of course, personally — full disclosure here — I think Gucci products are among the most hideous ever designed, so I might be prejudiced. Those ghastly, ubiquitous purses! But still, I was willing to be persuaded. It’s downright weird the way characters make speeches about the marvelous craftsmanship that made the Gucci fortune, and the vital importance of the Gucci legacy, but there are no reverently lit, memorably gorgeous shots of any Gucci designs.

Maybe that’s part of the “comedy”? Just like the family’s start was not at all aristocratic, their designs were always ugly as hell, and Uncle Aldo was the only one to figure out that cheap knockoffs weren’t losing much in the translation to mass-produced junk fashion?

I already like that version of the movie better.