I’m not sure it could be more fitting for a movie like House of Gucci to sit itself atop on an elevated pedigree: Its cast is star-studded, its production design extravagant, its director A-list. Yet the build-up around this fashion-world biopic is something more in the vein of a tabloid-like explosion, which, in a way, again seems fitting. Yet a campy, tabloid trashterpiece isn’t what House of Gucci is: Sure, Lady Gaga has some moments of spidery chic in her role as couture-clad Lady Macbeth-like Patrizia Reggiani, and Jared Leto does confound, under mounds of prosthetics, as luxury failson Paolo Gucci. But, through all that, you’d have to squint pretty hard to see a howling high-camp romp in House of Gucci. Instead, what we get is a fact-based family melodrama, and a rather plodding one at that. Undeniably any movie that inspires Al Pacino to tear a bite out of the scenery can’t be written off entirely as a kitsch artifact, but for the most part director Ridley Scott leaves the exaggerated Italian expressiveness to his cast — or, to be more specific, about half of it.
For a while Gaga and Leto are chef’s kissing to the Milanese rafters, while Adam Driver (as Gucci heir Maurizio) and Jeremy Irons (as Gucci patriarch Rodolfo) stick to a more earthbound school of acting. And so they form the bumpers for which their co-stars bounce off of. And this definitely has its pleasures, seen largely in pairing of Leto with Al Pacino (who plays Paolo’s disappointed dad, Aldo Gucci), but even more specifically in Leto, who’s performance is so outrageously over-the-top that he practically erases the binary between good and bad acting. It’s a gloriously unsubtle performance that evokes a cartoon reflection of ’80s materialist excess. Yet such an approach also sucks out any potential real feeling; whenever Leto delivers his dialogue in a lilting sing-song tone — which is all the time — it’s of course funny, but the question of whether the joke is on the character, the actor, or the audience is open. Meanwhile, the pairing of Gaga and Driver is a little less outrageous and a little more convincing early on in the film, where the interplay between the passionate Gaga and more reserved Driver reflects the heady early days of the characters’ relationship.
This one-hundred-fifty-seven-minute film opens in the late ’70s, when Gucci was a family business (an aristocratic one, but family owned nonetheless) and Patrizia simply a secretary at her father’s modest trucking business. A chance encounter at a disco party leads to an exhilarating romance, but the free spirit and proletarian directness that Maurizio loves about Patricia are the same qualities that make her a less-than-desirable bride for a Gucci. They get hitched anyway, and Patrizia takes to the upper-class Gucci lifestyle like she was born to it. She also develops some strong opinions about how Gucci should be run, setting off a chain of events that eventually leads to murder. But with such an assuredly shocking story that’s filled with eccentric detours, for it to work as drama we have to be drawn into the complex psychologies of the characters so that the journey matters more than the destination. Something that this film does not do.
Fitting the movie’s general excess, there is a lot of plot in House of Gucci, whose story spans decades and continents. But how it comes together isn’t exactly the most deft; generally the editing is dull and edgeless; we slouch in and out of scenes in a way that leaves a would-be epic study of greed and obsession feeling oddly shapeless and oversized. How ironic that a movie that keeps paying lip service to the importance of hand-made craftsmanship would feel so indifferently stitched. And a similar thing could be said of Scott, who rather than submit to taking the material fully over the top, keeps the filmmaking fatally even keel or just lacking. This is a movie filled with beautiful things, but they aren’t filmed beautifully — or menacingly, or with ironic distance. Scott stages things rather generically, rendering the film’s gaze as crisp and omniscient and indifferent, because Scott doesn’t want to risk real feelings or perspective or much of anything. The director’s overkill is mostly auditory: He dots the film with blindingly obvious ’80s needle drops and works in some odd, incongruous sound effects.
Both of those techniques play like a tacit acknowledgement of the inherent vulgarity of the enterprise, a movie about people for whom too much was never enough. Mauricio and Patrizia’s rapacious appetites for luxury are rendered with an eye for detail: The film opens with a closeup of Driver’s wrist adorned with an absurdly expensive watch, and every table around which our characters gather is piled high with wine glasses, espresso cups, and overflowing ashtrays. Figures like Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley, Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld make fictionalized cameos, providing amusing Easter eggs for students of fashion history. And of course, Janty Yates’ costumes are strong, basked in diva potential. But it’s all continually the script that pulls so much down: Scenes are filled with speeches spelling out the characters’ motivations and hang-ups without ever really showing them to us, and even as the intrigue ramps up the tone remains static. Scott isn’t interested in showing the Guccis as plausible human beings: He wants to smash them together like action figures. And so he unleashes Leto and Pacino to showboat and slackens the leash on Gaga until she loses the thread of what she’s doing. As she showed in A Star Is Born, Gaga can hold the camera with a look and knows how to leverage her celebrity even while slipping invisibly into character. But the script stays on the surface, and with no real depths to plumb, Gaga’s performance ends up in the shallows.
This is a movie that could easily become too much. The fact that it doesn’t is less admirable and much more disappointing. On the one hand, House of Gucci comes so close to flowering into something bonkers that its more moderate tendencies feel like a tease. On the other hand, the fact that it takes the form of a stifled hot mess in order to better tell the story of a bunch of hot messes represents a perfect union of form and material; a piece of designer material that ultimately feels more like a knockoff. At its best when it’s belligerently playing to the rafters and sinking whenever it decides to play things straight, House of Gucci is ultimately a much more plodding, disappointingly even-keeled affair.
House of Gucci is playing in Theaters nationwide