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Wretched Excess: The So-Bad-It’s-Bad ‘House of Gucci’

Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and Jared Leto chew up plenty of scenery in Ridley Scott’s second film of 2021, but the movie has no real depths to plumb

United Artists/Ringer illustration

When asked to comment on the unfortunate box office flop of The Last Duel—the biggest casualty of a fall movie season that’s otherwise proved that big-screen viewership is back—Ridley Scott didn’t mince words. He told Marc Maron that the fault lay primarily with “the audiences who were brought up on [their] fucking cellphones,” as well as claiming that Disney did a perfectly good job promoting the film, which happens to be the best one the 83-year-old Scott has made in ages.

Blaming millennials (or, Scott called them, “millennians”) for everything is all in good fun—go ahead, try it, you’ll feel better!—but The Last Duel’s failure is more likely a combination of somber subject matter and the diminishing influence of critics to help sell tickets. What separates Scott’s follow-up, House of Gucci, is surely its more audience-friendly nature, but also its pacing. More specifically: The movie doesn’t have any. It’s so plodding that, with apologies to Sir Ridley and his pious Luddite act, it almost feels like it was made to be watched at home while scrolling through random websites—maybe Wikipedia, to see whether the movie’s seemingly stranger-than-fiction details about the feuding members of the famed Italian fashion house could possibly be true. Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 best-seller, from which House of Gucci was adapted, is subtitled “A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed,” a sampling that covers most of the deadly sins. The movie fills in the rest with gusto; a lingering close-up of premium beef carpaccio is easily the most gluttonous shot of the year.

What’s strange about the differences between House of Gucci and The Last Duel is that the movies share an editor—the great Claire Simpson, whose work in suturing together Duel’s layered character arcs and contradictory narrative perspectives is sharp and Oscar-worthy. In House of Gucci, though, the cutting 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 handmade craftsmanship would feel so indifferently stitched.

It’s understandable that a director like Scott would be attracted to a tale of monogrammed tragedy. As a commercial director in the 1970s and early ’80s, Sir Ridley cultivated the same kind of glossy, hard-sell aesthetic that Gucci used to peddle its wares in magazine spreads during the same period. Before trying his hand in Hollywood, Scott made his name as a commodity fetishist; he made himself a brand name by branding, and he’s never lost his eye for haute couture or product placement. For all his endurance as a 21st-century A-lister, Scott’s style and sensibility have always had a strong I-Love-the-’80s undercurrent, which may be why he keeps wanting to return to the intellectual properties he erected way back when. It follows that the scene set circa 1978 when Adam Driver’s shy, sly Maurizio Gucci meets cute with Lady Gaga’s working-class goddess Patrizia Reggiani on the dance floor to the throbbing synths of “Le Freak” is right in his wheelhouse. C’est chic indeed: Patrizia’s wide-eyed look after learning her pickup’s surname suggests a wannabe fashionista hypnotized by the possibilities of gaining access to the kingdom.

Opposites attract: Patrizia is as forward and fun-loving as Maurizio is reticent and reserved, and she knows how to get what she wants. Their initial courtship is rendered by Scott in a series of sugar-coated, borderline parodic rom-com strokes shot with disarming documentary details: She dabs takeaway calzone sauce off his chin and writes her number in hot pink lipstick on the windshield of his motorcycle. After a semi-disastrous lunch with Patrizia and his faded matinee-idol father Rodolfo (a wonderfully sulky Jeremy Irons, understanding the assignment), Maurizio tells the latter this is the woman he’s going to marry. The reply: beware of gold diggers, or maybe something even worse.

There’s no maybe about it, of course. Because House of Gucci’s material is so tabloid familiar, we know that we’re watching the beginning of a fatal attraction. Patrizia is only two decades away from taking out a hit on the love of her life. (The cold open is set in the moments before the murder—a cheap, dread-instilling storytelling device.) The story is shocking, for sure, and with lots of eccentric detours (Patrizia consulted a psychic before hiring a contract killer), but 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. The actors try their hardest, and yet at times, the trying is part of the problem. Even if the Guccis were, as their biographers have always claimed, genuinely larger (and weirder) than life, there’s a limit on how big performances can get before they start crushing a movie—even one as grand and spacious as this one.

So, to get it out of the way: As Maurizio’s ill-fated and sartorially challenged cousin Paolo—a black sheep who could use a shearing, a doppelganger for Fredo Corleone—Jared Leto is so outrageously over-the-top as to erase the binary between good and bad acting. He either deserves an Oscar or should be sent to the Hague. Paunchy and pockmarked, stringy and balding, staring out at his costars from beneath layers of prosthetics, Leto commits fully to the bit, which is that in a family defined by a certain bespoke elegance, Paolo wears his failures on his sleeve. “He’s an idiot, but he’s my idiot,” explains his long-suffering father, Aldo (Al Pacino), who mostly seems disappointed that he didn’t pass on his own wolfish brilliance. The balance of exasperation and pathos in the relationship is promising, but any real feeling drains away whenever Leto delivers his dialogue in a lilting sing-song tone—which is all the time. This isn’t just a phony Italian accent—it’s like a meta-commentary on phony Italian accents. “I’m a-going to soar, like a pigeon,” Paolo crows at one point, and of course it’s funny. The question of whether the joke is on the character, the actor, or the audience is open.

As E-40 sagely reminded us, everybody’s got choices, and unless it comes out that Leto has the same kind of compromising documents on Scott that his onscreen alter ego had on his dad—a crucial act of blackmail that facilitates Maurizio’s rise to CEO—we can only conclude that his kamikaze stunt acting is on purpose. And, to play devil’s advocate for an actor who hasn’t really earned it with his other recent performances, there’s something fascinating about Scott’s use of Leto as a human alienation effect. It’s as if they were working to measure how preening and unconvincing a character can possibly be before the authenticity vacuum causes a rip in the space-time continuum; whatever else you can say about Paolo’s scenes, they aren’t dull.

Where Leto strives for more-is-more grandeur, Driver slow-plays his hand; as usual, he’s the smartest actor in his ensemble. Maurizio is self-effacing in a watchful, cautious way that gradually goes from sympathetic to sociopathic—he’s an opportunist who lets his pushy, unapologetic wife get her hands dirty behind the scenes while he remains literally and figuratively spotless. Driver is particularly good in the passages where Maurizio, having defied his father and gone to live with and work for Patrizia’s family, dives into a working-class pantomime shaded around the edges with contempt; sneaking a bit of afternoon delight with his bride in a truckyard portable, he’s aggressive in a way that’s less about passion than dominance, and the explicitness of the sex is bracing—it offers early hope that Scott made a movie for adults.

He hasn’t. Not quite, anyway. Scott’s attempt to position himself as the keeper of an old-school studio-movie flame—the last line of defense against Marvel and TikTok and those damn “millennians”—would be more laudable if he weren’t scribbling so much of House of Gucci in shorthand. 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—with Patrizia transforming into a leather-clad Lady Macbeth while crossing her heart that her intentions are pure—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.

The same goes for the movie as a whole. Contrast House of Gucci’s narrative of an earthy, low-born outsider lurking patiently in the corridors of power with Phantom Thread (alternate title: House of Woodcock) and the dramatic paucity of Scott’s approach becomes clear, as does his curious lack of style. The movie is filled with beautiful things, but they aren’t filmed beautifully—or menacingly, or with ironic distance. The film’s gaze is crisp and omniscient and indifferent, because Scott doesn’t want to risk real feelings or perspective on his 1-percenter effigies. There’s more plausible psychology (and empathy) on your average episode of Succession, as well as a smarter sense of how the lifestyles of the rich and (in)famous intersect with larger cultural and political issues.

It may ultimately be that these kinds of absences don’t matter, and that by taking the form of a hot mess in order to better tell the story of a bunch of hot messes, House of Gucci represents a perfect union of form and content; a piece of designer trash. It’s a movie blueprinted to be a hit, and if it succeeds—whether with boomers, millennials, Gaga’s Little Monsters, or some sort of broad coalition—it’ll sadly prove its own point about the inherent, illicit, and insubstantial allure of wretched excess.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.