House of Gucci debuts in theaters on Nov. 24, 2021.
It’s been hard to know what to expect from House of Gucci. With its trailers’ ‘80s-era synth and bass-pumping needle drops and the eyebrow-raising array of very gabagool Italian accents from its cast, this movie could have been anything from black comedy camp to an arch Godfather-like drama. In director Ridley Scott’s hands, it’s more the latter than the former. That’s certainly respectful of the bleak true story at its heart, but the director lets the whole affair get so self-serious and Lifetime-movie-overwrought by its meandering end that I was left wishing for the better film that’s buried in there somewhere.
The script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna uses Sara Gay Forden’s book, The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed, to create the spine of this tale of the murder of the former head of the Gucci fashion house, Maurizio Gucci, (Adam Driver) by his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).
With that casting of Gaga as Reggiani, there shouldn’t even be a question that the movie’s point of view belongs to her, yet it surprisingly does not. While it opens and closes with Maurizio on the day of his murder, the narrative is so scattershot in trying to service its large celebrity cast that there’s no clairty about exactly whose version of the events this is supposed to be.
The most successful part of this is the first 45 minutes, during which Scott presents the snappy, romantic, and sexy coming together of Patrizia and Maurizio in 1970. It’s an unexpectedly sweet way to open the film and gives us a sympathetic appreciation for both Patrizia and Maurizio when they meet-cute at a mutual friend’s party. Driver offers us a delightfully and unexpectedly socially awkward Maurizio, which is the perfect catnip to Gaga’s confident yet modest Patrizia. Their polar opposite character vibes make for a very charming, and for a moment, smouldering hot courtship that grounds the characters and our feelings about them before they take on his Gucci relatives.
And the duo are forced to enter the maelstrom of his world-famous family when his father, Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), rejects Patrizia as a gold digger and cuts off his son for eventually wanting to marry her. Through beautifully shot family dinners and lush courtyard conversations in and around Gucci’s huge estates, Scott does a fine job setting up the implied dynamics of the haves and have-nots in the story, and how Maurizio’s life has always been orchestrated behind the scenes by the men in his family. Because of that, it really resonates why Maurizio is extremely content and happy to work for his in-law’s, and leave the burden of his name behind him.
However, Patrizia is not settled with that decision so she prods him to accept his Uncle Aldo’s (Al Pacino) gesture to come back to the family. With only two male heirs left to potentially take over the family business, Aldo knows his idiot son, Paolo (Jared Leto), is a non-starter and that Maurizio is their only option to keep the legacy strong. He’s going to be a pawn played by his wife and his blood relatives for control, and this is where the movie starts to go off the rails.
Maybe because Scott does such a good job in the first act getting the audience behind Patrizia and Maurizio, it doesn’t make a lot of sense when Patrizia asserts herself as an opportunistic shark, embracing a social and financial ambition that is almost entirely lacking in her husband. Gaga is certainly charming as Patrizia even when she’s working his cousin and uncle as pawns to be played to their advantage. The script doesn’t make it clear why she chooses this path over her husband, so we’re left to guess which makes her more and more distant as a connectable character. All the sympathy then transfers to Maurizio as he’s forced to transform into the slick. calculating man he never wanted to be, all the while aware of the moral corruption that comes with the money and power in his family. He’s out of his depth in this world, unprepared to truly navigate it, yet helpless in deterring Patrizia’s orchestrations.
As the years tick by and the runtime blooms, Scott sort of Cliffsnotes their marriage, sacrificing the intimacy of their relationship for the bigger picture familial drama. Because of that, Patrizia and Maurizio devolve into sketches of their characters. As the relationship disintegrates, Patrizia becomes an emoting machine, erupting with jealousy or anger as Maurizio slips through her fingers, which is deserving considering her behavior. As a caricature of the spurned Italian woman, she’s increasingly dependent on her personal psychic, Giuseppina Auriemma (an underutilized Salma Hayek) and is increasingly sidelined from the action as Maurizio evolves into the man his ex-wife wanted him to be, pulling off chilling business moves that eventually put Aldo in jail for tax fraud.
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Performance wise, Driver and Pacino have the best handle on their characters. They both craft and execute the arcs of the men they’re playing, ascending and descending respectively, in their familial and business roles in ways that resonate. Pacino is surprisingly measured as he authentically plays the domineering Italian aging alpha male. And Driver subtly sheds Maurizio’s warmth and reticence as he ages into his legacy.
Unfortunately, Gaga’s Patrizia gets more shrill and arch. She makes the most of some campy, quotable scenes, but it never feels as organic of a performance as it did in the start. And boy, oh boy, what to say about Jared Leto? He makes the weirdest choices possible playing sad sack cousin Paolo. Buried in prosthetics, makeup and wigs to bring Paolo to life, Leto certainly makes the pitiable, talentless cousin a scene stealer – but not in a good way. He does liven up the more boring parts of the second and third acts, but a little of his Italian hand-throwing and bizarro accent goes a long way. Scott overindulges Leto over and over again, never reining him in, which adds to the painfully excessive two-and-a-half-hour run time.
All that means that the last hour of House of Gucci is a pretty joyless affair, with Scott focusing on strange things like non sequitur photo shoots for Maurizio or Paolo’s pigeons. And Patrizia is reduced to small appearances, which means her escalating to a place of murder is never contextualized outside of cartoonish fits of anger. It makes for a cold and unfeeling climax as the movie is no longer interested in presenting her as a fully realized person. And then the movie ends abruptly and without any drama, which is beyond underwhelming.
If Scott had taken an editorial cleaver to at least 45 minutes and orchestrated a thriller’s pace to Maurizio’s murder and Patrizia’s mania for retribution, House of Gucci might have been a far better film. Instead, Scott gets in the weeds charting the Guccis’ struggle to keep their company, which doesn’t even feel personal anymore. In fact, Patrizia and Maurizio might as well be footnotes in their own story as the text explaining how it all turned out ends up hitting harder than their last scenes on camera.