On the surface, House of Gucci sounds perfect. The Ridley Scott movie boasts a real-life crime, a flamboyant fashion backdrop, and Succession-style family drama. It stars Lady Gaga and Adam Driver as Patrizia Reggiani and Maurizio Gucci, the couple who dragged the Gucci family name into infamy when Reggiani orchestrated her husband’s murder in 1995.
The pictures that trickled out from the set of the actors in white and cream ’90s snowgear suggested promising transformations and a potential campfest; Gaga’s interviews about her thespian method (she even adopted the perspective of a cat to aid her transformation from Italian American to Italian) puts Marlon Brando’s famous method acting to shame.
But sadly, not much of the work is evident in the resulting film, which is unambitious and underwhelming. There are glimmers of what could have been three separate stories in the nearly 3-hour movie. But the messy script never even reaches good-bad territory; it’s weighed down with dad jokes, bad plotting, and thin characterization — especially of the woman supposedly at the center of the action.
The House of Gucci screenplay, by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, is itself based on journalist Sara Gay Forden’s book of the same name, which is essentially a fashion business reporter’s account of the family brand’s history. But the movie is too beholden to humdrum source material and never finds an angle to lean into with confidence. Instead, it tries to follow multiple strands, including the family’s backstory, the couple’s story, and the crime, none of which coalesces into a cohesive plot.
Scott imagined the film as an epic tale of modern-day Medici, but at least as presented here, the backstory of the Gucci fashion house is just not that interesting. When Donatella Versace took over the reins after brother Gianni’s murder, that was a moment with stakes, a family dynasty suddenly changing artistic directions and faltering in the era of corporate takeovers. This, on the other hand, is like a business story with no real drama.
We’re treated to stereotypical dynamics between two brothers, Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and a dandyish former actor Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), and their respective sons Paolo (Jared Leto) and Maurizio (Driver). Rodolfo is only in the movie to hint at his displeasure that Maurizio, a shy, bookworm lawyer, falls for Patrizia, a truck company owner’s daughter.
The scenes of their courtship, as Maurizio falls for Reggiani, are sweet and give a sense of the family dynamics she was marrying into. Gaga chews up her minor scenes with vulnerability and intensity. The problem is her role seems ancillary to the action at best, especially for a movie taglined “Her Rise Became Their Fall.”
The machinations over the brand — as the founder chooses his nephew over his son, and there’s tax fraud — are not exciting to watch. Jared Leto is clearly having fun as Paolo with his caricature of a pompous, shiftless heir. (Though, given his accent, I half expected him to suddenly burst into an exclamation of “pizza pie-ah.”) Driver is the better actor, but Maurizio is boring, and one yearns for some daddy issues or pettiness as the men of the family struggle over control of the brand. (Struggle sounds too dramatic for what basically amounts to a collage of paper signing scenes.)
Patrizia is reduced to raging about how knockoffs sold on the street were affecting the brand, in some kind of hamfisted attempt to hint at her womanly street smarts. Apparently, the real Reggiani was prone to comments like “I’d rather weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle” and “My husband was like a pillow — he carried the imprint of the last one who sat on it.” None of that dry wit is in evidence here.
Though the guys make castration jokes about Patrizia (She has “my little peaches in a very tight grip,” Paolo says; “She has bigger mangoes than you,” his dad says), in fact, there’s no real sense of What Patrizia Wants. She turns to a TV psychic (played with kitschy relish by Salma Hayek) as her confidant who uses bromides to explain Patrizia’s motivations: “You want everything.” But we don’t really see ambition in Gaga’s Reggiani, flattened through the condescending Hollywood sympathetic woman factory. She’s seen mostly through her relationship with her husband and comes off like a desperate wife in love with her spouse and just trying to empower him within the family.
Apparently, the real Reggiani was prone to comments like “I’d rather weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle” and “My husband was like a pillow — he carried the imprint of the last one who sat on it.” None of that dry wit is in evidence here.
When Maurizio leaves Reggiani for another woman, there’s one scene where she deals with his lawyer that gestures at her feelings about being stripped of her dignity. But there’s no real sense of how that abruptly culminates into murderous anger and a hijink-y murder plot.
Gaga says she ignored the journalism about Reggiani in order to create her own portrait, and it shows, but not in a good way. Her role in the script is held hostage not so much by the real story, but by two impulses that seem endemic in contemporary storytelling: for one, stories with a shiny object obsession for “bonkers” moments — for instance, an arrest while Paolo’s opera star wife sings in the background, or the spectacle of a TV psychic involved in a murder plot. These are dutifully played up as if incongruous details themselves make a good story.
The second problem is a fear of making women shameless antiheroes. There might be real strategy behind that fear. Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona in Hustlers got at the soul of a true crime girl boss much more skillfully, performing a calm callousness that allowed her to put her own interests ahead of everyone else’s, yet not without some warmth.
But critic Mark Harris astutely pointed out that was precisely why Lopez was shut out of Academy Award contention. As a star and actor, Lopez “did everything wrong,” he argued. “She dared to play a character who used her sexuality as a professional survival tool and didn’t regret it; she committed the unforgivable sin of being sympathetic and then not; she took her public image and spectacularly amplified and reworked it to suit a complicated character.”
Gaga has done the opposite in her own acting career. She has taken her complicated public persona and simplified it to play relatable women that can sell in big, wide-release movies. She played a sweet pop star girlfriend trying to save her man in her first outing, and now a devoted wife who wasn’t really immoral but maybe just loved her husband too much. Predictably, it’s already paying off with Oscar buzz.
“I don’t believe in the glorification of murder,” Gaga says in a snippet from an interview that has gone viral on TikTok. “I do believe in the empowerment of women.” That’s fine as a statement of her own mores. But the whole point is Reggiani had a more complicated code: She believed in murder as her form of individual empowerment. If only Gaga — and House of Gucci — had known what to make of that. ●