Ridley Scott’s second movie in as many months couldn’t be more different than the one that came before it. “The Last Duel” was a really good medieval period film that unfortunately bombed at the box office. Since then Scott has gone on to blame millennials, cell phones, Facebook, and so on. Without getting caught up in where he’s right and where he’s wrong, I’ll just say it’s a shame the movie didn’t get a bigger audience and you can’t help but theorize about the reasons why.
His follow-up “House of Gucci” could spark some of the same reaction from the 83-year-old filmmaker. Considering the source material, I always expected the film to be a train wreck. But would it be the good kind or the bad kind? The early reactions didn’t clarify much, and since then moviegoers have pretty much remain divided. Well after sitting through Scott’s nearly 160-minute drama/satire, I’m still not sure what kind of train wreck this ‘based on a true story’ yarn is.
Ridley Scott has been hungry to make a movie about the renowned Gucci fashion house since the early 2000s. If you don’t know the wonky history of this Italian family owned empire, I won’t ruin it for you. Suffice it that greed, betrayal, and even murder all have parts to play in their story. Scott’s avenue into the family’s prominence and eventual disintegration is the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga).
The movie opens in 1978 Milan where Patrizia works in the offices of her father’s smalltime trucking business. Our first glimpse of her shows a woman of ambition who has a taste for attention. Maurizio is the son and lone heir of Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons made up to look like death warmed over). Rodolfo owns 50% of the Gucci brand while the other half is owned by his brother Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino).
Scott, along with screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, begin the story by showing the unashamedly forward Patrizia’s pursuit of the bookishly awkward Maurizio. The ailing Rodolfo doesn’t like the budding romance and warns his gullible heir. But Maurizio rejects his father’s wishes (and his future inheritance) and marries Patrizia.
After showing how they became a couple and giving us a glimpse of their early days together, the movie spends the bulk of its time on how Maurizio and Patrizia made their way back into the Gucci ranks. Patrizia drives the burgeoning power couple to the top by first pushing the generally apathetic Maurizio (he’s studying to be a lawyer) into taking on a bigger role in his family’s company. But later, as her lust of fortune and fame fully reveals itself, Patrizia hatches plans behind her husband’s back to pit Gucci against Gucci. And while the couple eventually rises to the top of the fashion house, once the ever naive Maurizio gets wind of his wife’s manipulation, their marriage starts to crumble, much like Gucci family’s once prominent empire.
All of that makes for some batty yet undeniably compelling drama. Up to that point the story bops along at a steady pace and the inside look at this Italian family and their business is both interesting and comical. Scott spends a lot of time digging into the family dynamic and the shifting power structure. But he also pokes fun at the superficiality of their extravagant lifestyle and status. The cast is certainly in on the gag with Gaga leading the way. Parts of her performance is more caricature by design, plucking inspiration from the tabloids and running with it. But Gaga is so committed to details and in-tune with the material that she uses different scenes to rein in her character, revealing an emotional backbone that makes Patrizia real rather than a cartoon.
Driver is also very good. He’s like the straight man in an absurdist comedy. Driver portrays Maurizio as stiff and sheepish, brandishing a thick comb-over and even thicker oversized glasses. He hardly ever gets above room temperature, but that’s part of the character’s strength, especially as he subtly transforms before our eyes. Pacino is clearly having a lot of fun, hamming it up in the early scenes while shattered and defeated in the latter. Jared Leto is a little sketchier. He plays Aldo’s buffoon of a son Paolo. On the other hand, you could say Paolo is the only forward-thinking Gucci of the bunch. Leto goes full…something, burying himself under layers of makeup and latex while doing a routine that can be hilarious yet utterly distracting.
But then we get to the third act which quite literally brings the film down a few pegs. The movie completely loses its footing as it bogs down in scenes dealing with control of shares and majority ownership. Meanwhile Patrizia becomes this impossible to read character. So much so that the the movie doesn’t even seem to know how to portray her. And then there is the woefully undercooked buildup to the big crime. We only get a couple of scenes to show the planning and the crime being carried out. Even less attention is given to the outcome. Just snap your finger and everyone is suddenly in court being sentenced…end movie.
For about two-thirds of “House of Gucci” I was onboard, really enjoying the wackiness of the impervious rich and famous. I was into the film’s central relationship and was getting a kick out of the crazy contrast between both the characters and the performances of Gaga and Driver. But everything comes to a screeching halt in that third act and the movie suffers for it. I watched several people leave the theater during it. I was invested enough to see it through, but I can see why some were ready to check out. “House of Gucci” is now showing in theaters.