Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. In adapting Sara Gay Forden’s book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed for the big screen, director Ridley Scott (who has been circling this project since the early 2000s) and writers Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna only scratch the surface of the eccentric family behind the world-renowned fashion house. But they do so in a way that feels almost meta; this story is insane, and they know it, and we know it, and Scott and company craft a film that leans into its camp potential with gusto.
The main problem with “House of Gucci,” however, is that it occasionally tries to be a legitimately serious movie too. Over the course of its over two-and-a-half hours, scenes played straight are inserted between scenes played for laughs, and the fact that the story tries to encompass so many characters and events over so many years doesn’t do the film’s wavering tone any favors. “House of Gucci” opens in 1978, not with a member of the Gucci family, but with Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), a young woman working for her father’s truck-driving business in Milan. It’s clear from her initial entrance—she speeds up to the office in her flashy sports car, and smiles as the workers whistle at her as she struts across the parking lot in her stilettos—that Patrizia likes attention. So when she goes to a party and has a chance encounter with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), she sees an opportunity. Maurizio isn’t interested in the family business (he’s studying to be a lawyer), and he’s bookish and awkward, prompting Patrizia to be the forward one in their relationship. After she wins him over with her attentions, they marry, despite Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) refusing to give them his blessing, seeing Patrizia as a gold digger. Once they are wed, Patrizia puts her schemes into action, winning over Maurizio’s family members like his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and cousin Paolo (Jared Leto) before pitting them against each other to win control of the company for Maurizio—and, by extension, herself.
“House of Gucci” is stuffed but rarely introspective, gliding over events in the Gucci family’s history—from a raid on aspiring designer Paolo’s fashion show to Maurizio’s takeover of the company from Aldo before being bought out to the hit Patrizia orders on Maurizio that culminates the movie—without pausing to take a look at how they affect the characters involved. Patrizia, who is arguably the film’s main character, feels the most like she is being viewed from a distance. Characters throughout the film speculate on her real intentions in marrying Maurizio, but we never hear her intentions from her. The most honest scenes she has are the ones she shares with Pina (Salma Hayek), a television psychic who befriends Patrizia, and who Patrizia comes to rely on for insight about her life and marriage. I certainly don’t believe we need to feel empathy for a woman who resorts to murder to get what she wants, but there’s something distasteful in the way the film paints her as being a crazy stalker, first in her initial courtship of Maurizio, and later, more explicitly, after they have separated, and she confronts him with a tear-strained, mascara-streaked face.
At the same time, there’s something beguiling about Gaga’s presence and performance that makes Patrizia’s swing from eager social climber to vengeful ex more palatable. Don’t get me wrong, no one in “House of Gucci” delivers a legitimately good performance, with the possible exception of Al Pacino (because he’s Al Pacino, but also because there’s a scene where the hurt in his eyes at a family betrayal feels like the movie’s one true punch to the gut) and Adam Driver (and that’s mostly because Maurizio is the most sane and hardest to caricature member of the family). But Gaga’s over-the-top accent and personality matches the story and character well, and it’s clear that she’s having a lot of fun playing someone so bad. And she also somehow isn’t the most ridiculous character in this movie. That distinction belongs to Leto, who, in his performance as Paolo, hides behind heavy prosthetics that render him virtually unrecognizable, and an “Italian accent” that must have Mario shaking. Any scene he’s in becomes immediately impossible to take seriously, whether we are meant to or not; even his suffering as the much-maligned black sheep of the family is played for laughs. His presence, which becomes more prevalent in the movie’s second half, is a big factor contributing to the film’s uneven, sometimes funny camp, sometimes serious drama, tone. It’s a very bad performance, one that also hilariously makes it feel like Leto is sometimes just off in another movie of his own.
The trailers for “House of Gucci” sold fashion and sleaze, and, well, we did at least get some great costumes out of it. At times I wish it had been less silly and more trashy. While this seems like an odd project for Scott, whose previous film was the medieval epic “The Last Duel,” the disdain he has exhibited on his recent press tour confirms for me that he was just the right man to bring this stranger-than-fiction story to the screen. “House of Gucci” may be a mess, but if one thing is clear, it’s that every character in it is an overly privileged, irredeemable monster. Sometimes it can be hard to get behind a movie when not one person in it is likeable or relatable, but with a story like this, it’s nice to be given permission to just shake your head and laugh. It’s a mess, but at least it’s a mostly entertaining one.
“House of Gucci” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 157 minutes. Rated R.