It would seem it wasn’t that long ago when I sat in the cinema to watch The Last Duel and emerged positively amazed at the fact a man well into his eighties could direct a movie this aggressive, poignant and provocative, all in the guise of a familiar medieval epic. You shall also be informed that in a recent podcast I was a part of (available over at CLAPPER’s Patreon channel that I strongly suggest you subscribe to) I may have confidently suggested that Ridley Scott just doesn’t miss at all and the worst he can do is mediocre. Boy, was I wrong!
2021 marks the third year that saw two Ridley Scott-directed features released for public consumption. Previously, in 2001 he signed off on Hannibal and Black Hawk Down and in 2017 he directed Alien: Covenant and All the Money in the World. Although he’s not the only filmmaker out there known for occasionally releasing multiple movies in the same year (Steven Spielberg used to be one such specimen as well), especially large budget tentpoles with immense casts, it is a well-established fact that squeezing out two big Hollywood productions in the same calendar year amounts to a feat of strength. Having now seen House of Gucci – Scott’s second movie of 2021 – I am inclined to think that maybe at his age he should not lift this much. He might pull a muscle. Or break a leg. And do you know how dangerous a fracture can be at his age?
Now, I don’t enjoy writing takedowns and come to think of it I don’t quite know how to write them to avoid looking like a disappointed child pointing out flaws in something I’d never have the acumen to assemble myself. Therefore, what I at least try to do is to behave like a forensic scientist investigating a crash site where an airliner plummeted to the ground, turned into a fireball and consumed the lives of its passengers and crew. I look for the black box and do my level best to figure out what went wrong that led to this catastrophe.
So, I think it goes without saying that I did not like House of Gucci one bit, even though on paper it looked as though it could have worked on me. After all, I like big ensemble cast pieces and self-aware humour, especially in the context of what was surely promising to be a true-to-life re-imagination of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth with 80s glam chic, aviator glasses, voluminous perms and lots of cheese. Suffice it to say that even a cheese afficionado will sometimes stumble upon a dairy product they find revolting, and such was the case in here.
Adapted from a 2001 book titled The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed, the film follows the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) as they become Italy’s foremost power couple and slowly but surely work to usurp power over the Gucci empire from Maurizio’s uncles Aldo (Al Pacino) and Paolo (Jared Leto under a veritable metric tonne of makeup). As the title of the book suggests (and since it is after all based on a true story that at one point was well publicized), House of Gucci becomes Ridley Scott’s Casino with a hint of Macbeth in that it tries to apply a cocky, comedic tone to what essentially is a tragic love story with an assassination plot somewhere in there. As the movie plods along, we hang onto the shoulders of Driver and Gaga and recount the seemingly sprawling history of how the Gucci empire returned from obscurity into the forefront of fashion, how a young and sheepish Maurizio grew a pair and how his wife Patrizia did not like the fact that her own creation took a life of his own and had him whacked.
Now, on paper this story probably works and I could honestly imagine reading the book or maybe even watching a long-winded documentary about it, but the way House of Gucci is assembled just doesn’t come together in any meaningful way. I can identify at least two major reasons why I don’t think Scott’s movie works the way it should or the way Scott’s apologists kid themselves it does. First of all, as painful as it is for me to say, I don’t think the story has what it takes to carry a nearly three hour-long Scorsese-esque epic. Granted, a lot of stuff happens in the film but the central narrative of Maurizio and Patrizia’s caustic relationship and their meddling just isn’t propulsive enough to keep this behemoth of a movie from stalling. In fact, it feels quite often as though it was personally recounted by Ridley Scott who – let’s not forget is an octogenarian.
Have you ever been told a story by your grandpa? Sure, you have. Was the story good? Did the aging raconteur keep it together the whole time? Or did he lose the plot on occasion, and you had to remind him where he was so that he could resume his story? Or maybe he’d occasionally drift into an odd tangent and end up rambling about something completely unrelated for a while before you had to nudge him back because you didn’t have the whole day to sit there, and you really wanted to find out how the story ended? That’s what watching House of Gucci feels like. It’s a meandering narrative with a multitude of characters, full of distractions and tangents that the storyteller feels are crucial, while you might feel some could easily be omitted or severely truncated. In fact, the movie is so narratively messy that had it not been for the very beginning that hints at a murder about to happen, it could take you completely by surprise when things eventually take a dark turn.
I suppose some viewers find this wild, fascinating and entertainingly unhinged – which is fine – but at least from where I am sitting, a movie needs some truly strong, compelling and well-defined characters for it to be pulled off successfully. Sadly, neither Driver’s Maurizio nor Gaga’s Patrizia have that X-factor. This has little to do with actual performances, to which I’ll get in a second, but rather with the people these actors were attempting to portray. They’re just not that interesting. Some of the stuff that happened to them and some of the stuff they orchestrated may be compelling to an extent, but the way the movie sells them, they were just a bit bland. Or more specifically, they were too bland to carry a sprawling epic, no matter how much effort the actors would put in their respective performances.
Speaking of performances, actors and effort, it is undeniable to me that House of Gucci has a massive problem with direction. To be specific, the movie is assembled with competence and professional vision, which is to be expected given the fact Scott is an experienced professional himself. However, he may have dropped the ball when it came to supervising the film’s performances, dispensing direction and keeping the lid over the entire ensemble. Now, it must be said that it is a tall order to restrain Al Pacino on his own, let alone in a cast together with Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Lady Gaga and Adam Driver. Consequently, due to what I can only imagine is lack of sufficient oversight or over-abundance of directorial trust, the film oftentimes looks like a cinematic equivalent of when Jimmy Carr brought a basket of kittens to the set of 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and fruitlessly attempted to keep all of them from escaping the basket and roaming the set. Similarly to Jimmy Carr’s predicament, there’s comedy to be extracted from this, but contrary to little cats which are inextinguishably adorable, these performative antics quickly grow tiresome and annoying.
Suffice it to say, House of Gucci is not a single film as far as performances are concerned, but at least five films. Driver is in his own film, Gaga is in her own film, Irons is half asleep and probably wishes he wasn’t in the film and instead was free to take a nap, Pacino is not only in his own film but in in his own world, and Leto… Leto is not even in the same galaxy. In fact, he’s more likely to be in a parallel universe of his own. And although all these performances are well-crafted (though I fail to understand the reason why Jared Leto was hired to play under a tonne of makeup while a real bald Italian could have been hired to replace him… other than for comedic effect), they completely fail to gel together. In fact, whenever these actors share the stage, they don’t amplify one another. They don’t synergize. Instead, they are stochastic and completely unable to interact with each other in a manner that would elevate the material.
What they do provide, however, is laughs, but perhaps in an unintentional manner, which is why the entire movie has been labelled as camp by its staunch apologists. The characters of Maurizio, Patrizia, Aldo, and Paolo are not organically comedic. Their over-the-top performances on the other hand are, as the actors seem to be somewhat self-aware in this regard. They all put on thick accents and carry themselves with enormous confidence knowing perfectly well they look ridiculous in their period-accurate-yet-flamboyantly-exaggerated costumes inspired in spirit by American Hustle, all the while the narrative seems to indicate a serious drama is supposed to unfold. While this tonal disconnect is principally interesting and could resolve comedically, it immediately wears thin because – as I mentioned above already – the characters don’t have the ‘cran’ to keep me invested.
Moreover, the actors themselves seem to transcend the concept of character self-awareness every now and again, mostly when they get to share the stage with Jared Leto, whose take on Paolo is so overbearing and ridiculous that it borders on being pathetic. He shouts and whistles and rolls his r’s with stupendous conviction, as though he was fighting for the undivided attention of Academy voters. And after exactly five minutes of interacting with him, Jared Leto’s performance as Paolo becomes unbearable to look at. In fact, I think he was unbearable to be around on the set because every time he interacts with other actors, they eventually stop acting and – through their characters – try to tell Jared to pipe down or tell him off for shamelessly trying to hog the limelight. Admittedly, it is quite funny to witness how Jeremy Irons, who probably could not decide whether he wished to keep his native English accent or put on a faux Italian one so he flip-flopped between the two seemingly without a modicum of control, dressed down Paolo and called him a triumph of mediocrity for mixing pastels and browns, while thinking that in reality these comments were meant to tell Leto he should stop trying to be such a pretentious blowhard on the set.
As a result, House of Gucci does feel like watching a basket of kittens descended upon a film set, with Ridley Scott scrambling around to pick them up one by one, all the while a modern-day reimagining of Macbeth is supposed to be unfolding. It has its charm and most of it stems from the aesthetic novelty of having to watch Ridley Scott trying to keep a lid on a basket of kittens while Adam Driver is in the back attempting to recite the ‘life is but a walking shadow’ soliloquy, but it’s not enough to excuse a 157-minute-long running time. In fact, the film wears out its welcome exactly after ninety minutes and it’s all downhill from there.
All in all, House of Gucci adds up to a profoundly infuriating experience that works only momentarily and perhaps despite its intentions. It ultimately unravels and becomes a bore because the story isn’t interesting enough to carry its own weight. Ironically, I don’t think the filmmaker and the actors liked it either, which led them to orchestrate a veritable cacophony of performative glitz that – while intriguing initially – is completely indigestible.