What manner of beast is House of Gucci, an adaptation of the 2000 nonfiction book of the same name by Sara Gay Forden? Is it a multigenerational family crime saga in the tradition of The Godfather, a comparison that has been suggested by co-screenwriter Roberto Bentivegna? No, maybe it’s a campy mid-20th-century melodrama—Douglas Sirk by way of Luchino Visconti—with an operatic (if nonsinging) lead performance by the 21st century’s reigning multimedia diva, Lady Gaga. Wait—or is it a dirt-dishing business drama about sneaky chicanery behind the scenes of the high-end luxury industry? House of Gucci is all these things and more, plus, very possibly, a floor wax, a dessert topping, and a portal to another dimension.
I wish that, like the friend I saw it with, I had experienced House of Gucci purely as a Rocky Horror Picture Show-style campfest. She and the woman next to her seemed to be having so much fun. But to speak my boring truth, though I did my share of chortling in the screening room, especially at Jared Leto’s prosthetics-laden turn as needy wannabe designer Paolo Gucci (think Chef Boy-Ar-Dee in a bald wig and latex jowls), House of Gucci’s two-hour-and-forty-minute running time, for me, did not fly by on swift wings. This overstuffed and ungainly film might have made more sense in a six- or eight-hour miniseries format. There could have been whole episodes devoted to the central romance between Gaga’s business-savvy Patrizia and her initially passive husband Maurizio (Adam Driver); to the King Lear-like battles about which members of the next generation should inherit control of the Gucci fashion empire; and to the double father-son reconciliation plotlines, one between Paolo and his expansive father Aldo (Al Pacino) and one between Maurizio and his far cagier dad, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons). And maybe with enough running time allotted to it, House of Gucci could have spent some time on actual fashion, a topic in which director Ridley Scott and the writers seem to have virtually no thematic or visual interest (even if Gaga does wear something in the vicinity of 70 outfits over the course of the film).
Taken on its own, each of these stories could make for a promising movie. Scott’s admirably loopy attempt to jam them all into a single story makes for an ungainly but mesmerizing artifact. House of Gucci’s dramatic narrative can have a maddening frictionlessness, as if the movie were rushing past the most interesting parts of the characters’ lives to leap from one meme-able moment to the next (not that the director, 83-year-old Ridley Scott, likely has any idea what a meme is).
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that House of Gucci never gains control of its tone—a prim observation that fans of this defiantly messy movie may well choose to interpret as a compliment. Its placement in the universe of genre movies (true crime, romance, corporate-boardroom drama) is as inconsistent as its cast’s Italian accents. These range from Leto’s assiduous tacking of a “schwa” sound onto the end of every possible word (“Eet ees a memory-a wrapped-a in-a Lycra!”) to Driver’s more subdued, but also more inconsistent, Milanese lilt. This is one of the first roles I’ve seen Driver in where he seemed truly miscast; the timid and manipulable Maurizio seems very far removed from the stolid slab of a man who plays him. Only two cast members, Gaga and Pacino—both Italian-American and New York-raised—are really convincing as members of the mob-like fashion dynasty, although of course no real Italian family would be speaking English with an accent anyway. It’s one of the conventions you must accept to find enjoyment—and there is indeed lots to be found in House of Gucci once you let go of your expectations of, say, learning anything about the Gucci company or understanding the characters’ motivations.
The movie’s breezy opening act sets viewers’ hopes high, as the flamboyantly stylish Patrizia, a receptionist at her family’s ground-transportation service, and Maurizio, the bookish law-school student and Gucci heir, fall in love during his student days in Milan. After they get married against Maurizio’s father’s will, Patrizia, a gracious but cunning navigator of family politics, gradually wins her snobbish father-in-law’s esteem as well as that of her husband’s powerful uncle Aldo. Patrizia has a vision for the Gucci company, one that involves innovative design and fierce protection of brand identity. Maurizio is less a business visionary than an impressionable Macbeth figure who is gradually corrupted by the spoils of power, including a slinky blond mistress (a frustratingly underused Camille Cottin, of Call My Agent fame).
“She likes playing dress-up,” Maurizio says half-apologetically of his wife as she models outfits for him on a shopping trip. He is right about both Patrizia Gucci and the woman who plays her. Gaga, who has long been a world-class scholar in the serving of lewks, makes the costumes speak for her character as her style evolves from swinging-’60s office sexpot—one character compares her, early on, to Elizabeth Taylor, whom she’s often made up to resemble—to ’80s power-suit boss lady, complete with gold snake choker and voluminous black bouffant hair. Gaga’s performance and self-presentation are, in the best sense, operatic. A late scene where she appears at her ex’s door long after being jilted to sobbingly proffer him a handmade photograph album of their marriage might as well be delivered in the form of a Puccini aria—something Gaga could probably pull off, should she take a notion to. Late in the film Patrizia forms an alliance with a tarot-card reader and psychic advisor, Pina (Salma Hayek), who, it’s suggested in one scene, might actually have some of the paranormal gifts she otherwise seems to be feigning. The short stretch of the film that involves the two women scheming in side-by-side mud baths and meeting for coffee with hired hit men gesture toward one movie I wish this could have been: a Europe-set Thelma and Louise, the portrait of two hot women on a mission of revenge.
In a late scene in House of Gucci, one character labels another “a triumph of mediocrity.” That paradox and others like it might be applied to the movie itself: It is a glamorous slog, a fabulous bore, a pointlessly bespoke bit of silliness. I cannot say that I personally plan to memorize the riper lines of dialogue and attend midnight screenings with props to throw at the screen—props that, touching on some of the movie’s key moments, might include live pigeons, checks with forged signatures, tiny white espresso cups, and men’s loafers lined with gold leaf. But if the film’s reception goes that way and House of Gucci, like Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner, ascends to the status of universally quoted cult object, I would make no objection. As Patrizia Gucci, a vision in a white fur ski hat, coolly informs her romantic rival, “I don’t-a consider myself-a to be a particularly ethical-a person, but-a I am-a fair.”