“I don’t believe in the glorification of murder. I do believe in the empowerment of women.”
This spicy soundbite is how Lady Gaga described her approach to Patrizia Gucci (née Reggiani) in House of Gucci. That title might suggest this movie is about a family dynasty of wealth, ego, and high fashion. But really, it’s about the savage and smart woman who made her way in then burnt its men down. This doesn’t make Patrizia a feminist hero (nor does the crime of which she’d be convicted). However, Gaga’s remark gives an insight into what lured her and director Ridley Scott to this twisted true-crime tale. Together, they combined star power, scandal, and a biting sense of humor to make a movie that feels like the smirking sister of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
House of Gucci is not technically a mafia movie. However, it shares DNA, centering on a family business that is defined by tradition, ruthless tactics, resentments, and greed. There are shady struggles for control, gleeful sequences reveling in luxury, and there’s murder. Most crucially, House of Gucci has its own Henry Hill, a charismatic outsider who defies the odds to make it into an elite inner circle, enjoying the perks therein, then turning traitor when the chips are down. In a low-growl voiceover that welcomes audiences behind the velvet rope of these ripped-from-the-headlines stories, Henry told us “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” In her own intriguing opener, Patrizia proclaims with a sultry snarl, “It was a name that sounded so sweet, so seductive…But that name was a curse, too.” She saw certain to that.
“But I am fair.”
Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
In the 1970s, Patrizia (Gaga) was an Italian woman, who had a middle-class job but upper-class ambitions and movie star good looks. So, when she met a sweet but socially awkward Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a posh party (which she’d crashed), she had her sights set on making his hers. Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna’s screenplay, adapted from Sara Gay Forden’s non-fiction book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed, focuses on her climb up the social ladder. So, we follow this ravishing brunette from the humble desk in her father’s trailer/office to the spacious foyer of a Gucci mansion. There, she’ll gawp at a massive glittering painting in open awe before being scoffed by Maurizio’s father (Jeremy Irons) for not recognizing it’s a Klimt. Immediately, protective patriarch Rodolfo flags her as an uneducated golddigger, but it’s a lost cause. Maurizio is in love, and the two are soon married.
Gaga has the strut of Marilyn Monroe, and the animated facial expressions and cheeky one-liners of a top-notch drag queen.
Rodolfo underestimates Patrizia’s wits, savvy, and genuine affection for his gawky son. (Adam Driver can be a devastatingly sexy leading man, but here he gives goofy grins and flops about to make quite clear that Maurizio is no dashing playboy.) After enduring years of being cut off (emotionally and financially) from his obscenely wealthy family, Patrizia begins a charm offensive to win over dear uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and his black sheep of a son, Paolo (Jared Leto). With a winsome smile, a barrage of praise, and a keen eye for opportunity, she weaves herself and Maurizio deeply into the Gucci family business. Along the way, there will be sex, scandals, and double-crosses. But nothing will deter this determined dreamer. And Gaga dives into the role with relish.
“Father, son, and House of Gucci.”
Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
There’s a joyful campiness to House of Gucci that is firmly established by the pop star turned movie star’s performance. As portrayed in the film, Patrizia is a self-made diva, whose bombastic personality brought her love, fortune, and ultimately infamy. Why tamp any of that down with a grounded performance? Instead, Gaga has the strut of Marilyn Monroe, and the animated facial expressions and cheeky one-liners of a top-notch drag queen. She is divine whether she’s making a promise that you know she won’t keep (“I swear. Father, son, and House of Gucci.”) or is tartly threatening a would-be Other Woman. (“I don’t consider myself a particularly ethical person. But I am fair.”) Her performance is outrageous, but that’s the point. It’s to urge audiences to see Patrizia as she desires to be seen: A goddess of glamor, passion, and vengeance when called for.
That is not to say this is a fawning portrayal. Like Goodfellas, House of Gucci never shies away from the dark side of their charismatic criminal. Still, through voiceover and centering on Patrizia’s journey, Scott urges us to understand her ambition if not its execution. However, a lack of development in characters around her, makes this world less elegantly realized than Scorsese’s. For starters, Driver’s Maurizio switches from a big-hearted do-gooder to a selfish, power-hungry bastard so quick that it feels like a comedy cut. Like, imagine you’re watching a sitcom and someone says, “I’d never jump into a volcano. Not ever!” Then the show hard cuts to them jump into a volcano. Does it make sense they had a radical 180-degree change of heart off-camera? No, but it’s funny in its surprise. Maurizio’s moral about-face might be meant as darkly comedic, but it also makes him unreal, distancing us from the impulse to empathize or have much interest in him at all.
Depending on how you feel about camp, your mileage may vary.
As the garrulous uncle, Pacino matches Gaga for screen presence and bursts of bombast, setting up a charged dynamic as the battle for dominance brews. Playing the more conservative brother, Irons has less spark, but he finds wry moments to expose the ego in this empire. Salma Hayek pops up as an unexpectedly blithe confidante/psychic, whose eyebrows arch in accompaniment to Patrizia’s zingers. But all of these characters feel thin and a bit dull next to the dazzle of Gaga.
Then there’s Jared Leto. Playing a middle-aged, bald, fat man, he is unrecognizable behind the padding and prosthetics. Paolo is presented as the family’s embarrassment, a man of bad fashion sense, no boundaries, and infinite blind confidence. His casting almost feels like Scott is trolling us, especially as Leto’s performance makes Gaga seem restrained. Where her tone can be appreciated in a camp lens that celebrates bold (and even bad) female characters, Leto’s portrayal feels like he’s a jester, spoiling the feast with a fart joke. But perhaps this is meant to reflect Patrizia too? Perhaps, Paolo is meant to be her foil: annoying where she is charming, tacky where she is chic, ultimately harmless where she is deadly. Maybe we’re supposed to find Leto deeply irritating — as Patrizia does.
Yes, this is Jared Leto.
Credit: Fabio Lovino / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
Leto aside, where House of Gucci struggles is in scenes that don’t involve Patrizia. Pacino and Irons can hold their own playing bickering brothers. But Driver or Leto don’t fare as well when shouldering scenes about the company’s clothing line. Scott treats the actual business of Gucci as a boring chore, which makes the movie drag. However, even at 2 hours and 37 minutes, even as its plotline wobbles, this film is overall a sensational ride, fueled by sex, greed, and a lust for living vicariously through lethally compelling criminals. Depending on how you feel about camp, your mileage may vary.
For me, House of Gucci is a swooning, snarling, and knowingly outlandish film that invites audiences into the glorious rush of excess and its evils. As packed with stars as it is soap-operatic moments and sharp style, it’s gorgeous, glamorous, and totally Gaga. She is its perfectly cast star, the sun around which all else gravitates. And she shines boldly and brilliantly from that first flirtatious smile to that perfectly scathing last word. Because of course, Patrizia gets the last word.
House of Gucci opens in theaters Nov. 24.