Legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott has mastered many genres in his illustrious career: science fiction (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER), war (BLACKHAWK DOWN), action/adventure (GLADIATOR), true crime (ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD), and the character study (THELMA & LOUISE). Heck, the directing virtuoso even shot the most famous commercial of all-time with his classic Apple spot “1984.” But with his latest release HOUSE OF GUCCI, Scott proves that dark comedy is not one of his forte’s. For my money, his take on the material may be the biggest botch of his career.
There are moments hinting at a brilliant dark comedy that HOUSE OF GUCCI might have been. The script, telling the true 1995 story of how a vengeful Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) hired two Italian thugs to murder her ex-husband Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), is there on the page. From first moment to last, we’re introduced to awful, loathsome people, a box of scorpions all too willing to sting each other. Unfortunately, Scott treats them all too sympathetically. The director creates more of a grand tragedy here, with far too much pity for Patrizia and all the other miscreants in her orbit.
Perhaps directors like Edgar Wright or the Coen Brothers would’ve aced this dark material, but Scott approaches it like it’s a companion piece to ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. That film deserved seriousness and sympathy because there was genuine tragedy in how billionaire J. Paul Getty refused to pay his grandson’s kidnapping ransom when the boy’s penniless mother could not. But the Gucci’s are not worthy of such pathos, and Scott fails to rake the brood across the coals as profoundly as he should.
In the story, Patrizia keeps telling herself that she married for love, but her actions show that she was nothing if not ambitious, ruthless, and selfish in her nuptials. Lady Gaga plays her too earnestly by half, never suggesting the self-awareness that clearly such a gold digger hand to have. Make no mistake, Gaga is a very talented actress as her roles in A STAR IS BORN and AMERICAN HORROR STORY have proven. But she plays her as a victim, and Scott encourages her to dial up the hurt at every instance she can. If Gaga had given the role some of the curled-lip knowingness that Patti LuPone brought to Eva Peron in Broadway’s EVITA, her performance might have been deeper, but as it stands, it’s stuck in the shallows.
So, why does Scott treat this story so empathetically? Head honcho Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino), a vainglorious old buzzard who cheated on his taxes for years. His son Paolo (Jared Leto) is a complete doofus, an untalented boob who foolishly fancied himself a designer and business titan. Yet, Scott goes out of his way to ask the audience to pity them despite the script showing us how awful they both are. The director only really gets Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) right, portraying him, unblinkingly, as the smug, condescending shit that the script tells us he is.
Adam Driver may be one of our best actors working today but he just isn’t right for the part of Maurizio, a malleable dupe of a rich kid whom Patrizia played like a grand piano. He’s too smart of an actor for this naif and we should feel little sympathy for him as he blithely lets his wife run Aldo and Paolo out of the company. But Scott wants us to like Maurizio, inexplicably. He encourages Driver to play the part almost like he’s a great big puppy dog.
Scott lets his actors’ Italian accents drift all over the place too. At times, Gaga sounds Ukrainian and Pacino sounds Borscht Belt. The director also lets Leto run wild in an extravagantly cartoonish performance that feels like it belongs in a Jim Carrey farce. The pacing is sluggish too, easily clocking in at 30 minutes too long. Granted, Scott makes everything gorgeous as production values have always been a strength, but this grotesque story should have been presented as much gaudier.
Late in the film, fashion designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney) is introduced to save the faltering Gucci empire and Scott finally bares his fangs. He ridicules Ford during the premiere of his first collection at the House of Gucci. Scott impugns Ford for sending a male model down the runway in ass-less pants with his package pouncing in silk underwear. Ford saved the Gucci brand with modern provocation, yet the talented designer gets more of the director’s ire than the idiots Ford was saving.
Scott has been one of cinema’s greatest directors for decades now and he’s directed and/or produced too many brilliant works to list here, but HOUSE OF GUCCI is not one of them. This film may be dressed to the nines, but as successful storytelling, it’s at sixes and sevens.