Around these parts, we like to champion scruffy independent movies. And not just out of appreciation for the moxie it takes to max out your parents’ credit cards in pursuit of a dream, or for the courage it takes to tell stories that many people wish wouldn’t be told, but because they’re generally, to put it bluntly, better. Without the distractions of megawatt movie stars or elaborate visual scope, filmmakers are often freer to focus on the aspects of cinema that move our emotions and engage our brains, instead of those that merely dazzle our senses and stimulate our glands. (Not that either of those last two is entirely a bad thing.)
(You know there’s a “but” coming, right?) But there are some stories, some movies, that can only achieve their full potential with the garish wind of Hollywood at their backs. I’m not talking about effects-laden action flicks—that stuff is getting cheaper all the time. No, it’s depictions of pure, unadulterated wealth that require the Tinseltown touch to ring true. While larger budgets are certainly handy for location shoots and luxurious sets, the general aura of not-at-all-wretched excess that top-line celebrity brings to the table can be even more valuable.
So, anyway, House of Gucci is pretty great. I can’t think of another living director, save perhaps Martin Scorsese, who could bring this tale of high fashion, scheming Italians, extremely first-world problems, and, yes, murder, to life than Ridley Scott. That indefatigable octogenarian walks the tightrope between campy nighttime soap and insightful true-crime drama with nary a wobble, aided by a cadre of perfectly cast pretty people who also happen to give performances ranging from quirkily endearing to great.
It was Sam Elliott who first told me that Lady Gaga was a screen force to be reckoned with, when I interviewed the Portland native in 2017 during the filming of Gaga’s breakout role in A Star Is Born. While that Oscar-nominated turn demonstrated her potent screen presence, it wasn’t much of a stretch to play a meteoric pop-music sensation. In Gucci, however, she’s a middle-class Italian social striver. Wait, that also doesn’t sound like much of a stretch considering the star’s actual family background. In any case, she’s captivating from the get-go as Patrizia Reggiani, the woman who, according to the movie, was the Yoko Ono who broke up one of the most iconic families, and companies, in fashion history.
The story kicks off in 1978 Milan, where Patrizia works for her father, the owner of a small trucking company. She finds herself at a swanky New Year’s Eve disco party, where she meets cute with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), scion of the family that has helped to define luxury in recent decades. Before you can say Signora Macbeth, she’s married the affable sap and driven a wedge between him and his father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons). Swayed by her, Maurizio allies himself with his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and Aldo’s misfit son Paolo (Jared Leto), and, well, a House of Gucci divided against itself cannot stand.
The only narrative thread that diverges entirely from the Gucci clan is that relating to Patrizia’s sudden, increasingly intense friendship with a TV psychic played by Salma Hayek. It seems like the most unlikely part of the story until you remember Nancy Reagan and Jeanne Dixon, but it’s a chance for Hayek to eccentrically shine. Illuminati alert: Hayek’s husband, François-Henri Pinault, is the chairman and CEO of the multinational conglomerate that currently owns the Gucci brand. Nothing to see here, move along….
Altogether, the five leads in this film have earned 15 Oscar nominations and four victories. Most of the nominations, of course, are Pacino’s, but he’s tied with everyone but Driver at one win apiece. And for Scott, they each bring their movie-star A games to the project, leaning in hard to their own individual interpretations of an Italian accent—I’m no expert, but I’d wager Pacino’s is the most authentic—and playing to the galleries with perfectly faked sincerity.
In other words, there is certainly some caricature occurring here, and Leto is the most gloriously guilty in that regard. Impressively, and heavily, made up as an unappealing, balding man-child, Leto reinforces the suspicion that he may be the absurdly Method, cult-leading agent of chaos that we need today. One fun game is to imagine that every unappealing, balding, middle-aged man-child in the cast of House of Gucci is played by Jared Leto. There are a lot of them. Given current cosmetics technology, though, it’s entirely possible.
Despite all that star power, the real attraction for viewers here is money—or at least, the trappings that serve to signify its ubiquity. The apex of this is the St. Moritz ski resort sequence, during which Maurizio and Patrizia, having fled to Switzerland to escape tax troubles in Italy, don the most attractive winter sports gear in existence and consort with other aristocrats. But throughout, Gucci spurs a sensation familiar to fans of HBO’s Succession, namely the particular schadenfreude that one experiences when watching people with access to every material comfort remain unsatisfied and miserable.
Maybe that, plus a pair of fully committed performances from Gaga and Leto, isn’t, for some, quite enough upon which to hang a 150-minute movie. Maybe the end result would have been more culturally insightful coming from an Italian auteur like Paolo Sorrentino or Luca Guadagnino. Maybe it’s disrespectful to depict these real people as cartoonish, greedy, and inept.
But Hollywood isn’t about truth or insight or integrity or, God forbid, realism. It’s about transporting us to another place, showing us what we’ll never know first-hand, and (ideally) not insulting our intelligence in the process. By those standards, House of Gucci is one of the best Hollywood movies of the year. (Opens Wednesday, Nov. 24 at area theaters)