While reflecting upon the 158 minutes of Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, the word “oddity” keeps racing through my mind. It’s odd in the sense that despite having an in-vogue cast, a more than highly qualified director and an engaging premise, the end product seems as cheap as a fake Gucci bag sold on Canal Street in New York City. Based on the promotional trailers, it’s easy to mistake House of Gucci for a vintage Scott production, but sit in a reclined movie chair long enough and the phony matte shine becomes apparent. Hyperbole aside (trust me, the movie has that more than covered), the filmmaker’s latest release does have some intrinsic merit. The casting itself is largely spot-on, and once again, Janty Yates, Scott’s go-to costume designer, knocks it out of the park. Lady Gaga is dressed to the nines, and Jared Leto IS Paolo Gucci. Still, even with all the stylized extravagance that’s on display, it adds up to a hill of beans with a director asleep at the helm, spontaneous tonal shifts and a bland Top 40 soundtrack.
With House of Gucci, Scott adapts Sara Gay Forden’s 2000 book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. In 1978 Milan, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) capitalizes upon a chance meeting with Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). She hopes to earn his last name by daring to create a fashion mogul out of a backward lawyer. A vital part of Patrizia’s path to the Gucci helm is reconnecting Maurizio with Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), especially because the ailing family patriarch, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), can read her poker face. Gaga’s character realizes that she, the daughter of a trucking company owner, will never be fully accepted, and thus pits Maurizio, Uncle Aldo and Aldo’s eccentric son, Paolo (Jared Leto), against each other in a vain attempt to steal the Gucci crown. What starts as crude family bickering evolves into corporate backstabbing, tax evasion, criminal investigations and the fractionalization of Maurizio and Patrizia’s family.
In terms of casting, both Teresa Razzauti and Kate Rhodes James assemble a truly unique and, in some cases, extremely uncanny troupe of actors. Gaga’s portrayal of the domineering arriviste Patrizia is that of a zestful and exuberant player, one who intends to make it big and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. And yet underneath all that dark eyeliner and heavy mascara, there is a tinge of vulnerability. The more Patrizia bumps elbows with the top-drawer glitterati, the more her eyes subtly express her anxiety. She knows this whole situation is out of her depths, but this is the 1980s. Patrizia will do whatever is necessary to survive. And to say that Leto “portrays” Paolo Gucci barely scratches the surface of his ownership of the character. Between the craftsmanship of prosthetics makeup coordinator Federica Castelli and Leto’s psychological nuances, it’s almost as if they exhumed the body itself and attached it to Leto as a second skin. And even if even Leto’s particular method acting style misses the mark, historical accuracy be damned, his on-screen charisma is beyond hypnotic. He is, in essence, the fashion world’s Pagliacci. Both Pacino and Driver deliver adequate performances as the fashion guru Aldo Gucci and his timid nephew, Maurizio, respectively. The actors may have done as much with the characters as they could, but the results are underwhelming. While Pacino’s Aldo is light and endearing, Driver’s Maurizio is downright boring. The Last Duel actor could have benefited by studying the depiction of Prince Charles in The Crown to learn how it is possible for boring to still be engaging. Pina Auriemma (Salma Hayek) merely serves her purpose. Still, it’s Jeremy Irons’ depiction of Rodolfo Gucci that brings that third necessary spark to the primary set of players; it’s just a shame he can’t stick around long enough.
Theoretically speaking, a Gucci biopic directed by Scott should have proven to be a match made in heaven given the filmmaker’s past successes. Consider his stand-out 1979 Chanel No.5 fantasy commercial. Every frame is visual perfection with sublime “gliding” movements and pacing. Later, after envisioning Sean Young as the futuristic noir chic diva Rachel in 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott completely outdid himself in 1985’s Legend with the danse macabre dress scene of Princess Lili (Mia Sara), the ultimate temptation for any fashionista. And yet Scott’s vision for the Gucci tale fails in the end, just like Patrizia and Maurizio’s romance.
Right from the get-go in House of Gucci, it’s clear that something is amiss. Patrizia’s introductory monologue sounds like a parody of Marlene Dietrich from Touch of Evil (1958). The opening tracking shot that foreshadows Maurizio’s fate abruptly ends as soon as it begins, giving hardly any context for the high stakes in play. In keeping with the film’s underwhelming entrance, Scott takes the liberty of making the ending just as forgettable. He does not abide by Peter Bogdanovich’s famous words of advice to begin with a bang and end with a snap. Beyond the introduction, Scott immerses viewers well into Patrizia’s state of mind during the first act, allowing Gaga ample time to create her character’s believability and shape a genuine sense of urgency. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski brings an Italian neorealist style to all of the exterior shots. The interior layouts of Vittoria Orlando’s debutante ball come across as a hybridization of Da Glo’s fashion runway and an homage to post-1963 Federico Fellini films. But it’s after the sixth time of seeing Patrizia batting her eyelashes at Maurizio that a repetitive formula becomes noticeably dull.
The stumbling block in the screenplay of Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna is simply a matter of identity crisis. On the one hand, House of Gucci attempts to be a board room thriller and TV show dynasty production; in theory, this sounds acceptable, but neither writer crafts a captivating scenario. Most of the time, scenes automatically set up the next inevitable crisis in the Gucci timeline, and with hardly any opportunities for the actors to add any deeper intrigue. Clarity and further understanding of Paolo’s schism with the company and his father are almost nonexistent. The only reason these characters exist is to add quirky comedic flare. Under different circumstances, perhaps this might have worked, but House of Gucci’s jarring pacing and lingering scenes create a deadpan effect. Many times, Wolski’s scenes employ an overdose of extreme close ups. The blockage of each shot evidences ineffective planning.
Given that a substantial amount of House of Gucci‘s pre-release appeal comes from the initial trailer’s high-octane soundtrack, it is greatly disappointing that the film’s needle drop selections don’t feel impactful. Both the music of Blondie and Eurythmics are indeed in the movie; the implementation, however, is forgettable. This is largely because the music enters and exits at such a low level that it might as well not be there at all. Strangest of all is the musical sampling of George Michael’s Faith that serves as the backdrop for Patrizia and Maurizio’s wedding.
The shimmering light throughout House of Gucci is Yates’ brilliant costume design. She wisely chooses dresses and suits that are period-appropriate while still giving the cast a particular Va Va Voom! factor. Through the aesthetic of her wardrobe alone, Gaga takes charge of every scene. Her cherry red dress at the beginning of the film has a dash of 1960s to it, a throw-back to the days of Gina Lollobrigida and Anita Ekberg. The illusions to Ekberg become more apparent when a white and chic power suit gives Gaga a rather buxom appeal. But given the actress’ commanding demeanor, no one will mistake this as cheesecake. The gaudy, eye-catching attire for Leto might even be too beautiful in comparison to Paolo’s real wardrobe.
In the end, attractive attire and a few memorable characters do not compensate for a lackluster screenplay. Given the popularity of Jesse Armstrong’s HBO series Succession and the obvious thematic connections to All the Money in the World (2017), House of Gucci had enormous potential. By failing to capitalize upon the opportunity to create a perfect synthesis of art and commerce, Scott leaves me wanting more.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.