'House of Gucci' deserved to be so much more

All-star cast and accents aside, the family saga of excess and betrayal is a mechanical mess.

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The once decadent queen is bereft. Standing outside of her husband’s home — thrust out of the castle of leather and luxury — Lady Gaga is left to pleading tears. For the majority of House of Gucci, the new Ridley Scott film tracking the descent of the family empire behind the Gucci brand, Lady Gaga’s Patrizia Reggiano is meant to serve as the movie’s central force: a savvy, opulent shark, pushing her husband Maurizio (Adam Driver), the heir to the luxury empire, to self-actualize into its new ruler. Yet, toward the end of the film, she is simply an estranged wife, desperately ambushing him with questions and, most pathetically, a photo album in-hand of their time together. Maurizio recoils in pity.

“Why are you talking to me like this?” she asks. Because, he replies, you can’t see what you’ve become. It’s a striking moment in the film for a couple reasons. For one, it is a sort of turning point — the most explicit example the film offers of what pushed Patrizia to ultimately and infamously orchestrate Maurizio’s murder. In this way, it is also inadvertently a revelation into what makes the film, adapted from the book of the same name, such a dismayingly flat, uninspired mess: like Patrizia herself, the audience isn’t sure what she’s become. The story has, to this point, offered no real sense of who she is or was, nor how and why she became the woman who would go so far as to have her husband, one of the most high-profile figures in the world of fashion, assassinated on the steps of his own home.

The most immediate talking point of this film for any critic or viewer is inevitably its stars and their performances — the instantly fascinating duet of Lady Gaga and Adam Driver; a prosthetic-slathered Jared Leto as the prodigal buffoon; the chaos of accents (despite all the hubbub and memes, Gaga has arguably the best; Driver, surprisingly, tied for the worst alongside Jeremy Irons). And indeed, it is the most alluring part: these stars in roles built for stars create a bombastic, often interestingly off-pitch ensemble performance. Yet, such a cast and such a lush, fascinating, and scandalous real-life tale deserved so much more than what is, on a basic storytelling and structural level, an egregiously underwritten and bland film.

By the time of this scene outside of Maurizio’s house, Patrizia has already been unceremoniously served divorce papers — we’re not exactly sure why, except for a short stretch that includes a ski trip in which Maurizio becomes interested in a friend and seems to decide he finds Patrizia annoying and even conniving. There is little substantive insight into their split despite the fact that the film spends most of its time tracking their relationship and marriage over the decades. They first meet at a party; Patrizia comes from some money (her father owns a successful trucking business) but is akin to a peasant when standing beside the institutional wealth of a Gucci. Their love doesn’t seem to be a scheme for her: Maurizio is at first a reluctant heir and for some time they choose to have a pedestrian family life away from the Gucci world.

But, especially as they eventually become entangled in the family business, Patrizia largely remains a cipher. We have a thin understanding of what really motivates her — partially, perhaps, in order to avoid falling into caricature and to induce a kind of character intrigue for the audience about Patrizia’s potential goodness or badness, but nothing of substance ever comes to prompt any real, interesting, or even salacious questions about her moral ambivalence. The same happens to Maurizio; if everyone is hanging at the edge of caricature, he is an utterly blank slate. Driver does his best, but the material never provides the remotest idea of what kind of person he is outside of a kind of unassuming heir that, by the film’s end, somehow becomes lost in power and excessive corporate spending.

There is a difference between showing the lack of nuance in a character’s disposition and a lack of nuance in storytelling — the film persistently mistakes the two.

This core failing pervades a film that reads as oddly mechanical, like a movie that is stuck in the first stage of story-boarding, tracking the broad points of a rise and fall but lacking the actual meat of intriguing or emotionally insightful scenes to create a world. In this way the movie is, at over two-and-a-half hours, both too long and too short. Everything lacks development or even much entertainment itself. The nature of Patrizia and Maurizio’s partnership is oddly empty. The relationship between Patrizia and Pina (Salma Hayek) goes inexplicably from comical fortune teller-confidant to murder accomplice. When Patrizia, upset about seeing the proliferation of bootleg Guccis, approaches Maurizio, then his Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) about the problem, Aldo suddenly chides the pair and tells them they mean nothing to what he alone has built. It’s a stark shift in loyalties from the man who was in fact the one who lovingly pulled them into the business; and it’s supposed to in turn explain a shift for Patrizia, whose crying face the camera lingers on. As to what Maurizio is thinking in this moment, we’re left in the dark.

It’s a frustratingly graceless sequence. The tone of this scene, like others, can be read as intentional — such abrupt shifts are indicative of the saga’s larger-than-life characters whose greedy, unsubtle personalities are in fact what specifically brought the family empire down. But there is a difference between showing the lack of nuance in a character’s disposition and a lack of nuance in storytelling — the film persistently mistakes the two.

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The murder, what we implicitly understand as the thing the entire film is building up toward, occurs not only without proper character development, but also inexplicably from a basic, sequential standpoint. It arrives immediately after one of the few striking scenes in which Maurizio is told by his foreign investors, the day after a highly successful show that revamps the brand, that control of Gucci is being wrested out of his and his family’s hands. The murder then lands suddenly and confoundingly in the next scene, without proper build-up or even a basic context to timeline.

What House of Gucci was initially thought to hinge upon — a diva Gaga threatening to pull the ship into an over-the-top affair — is in fact one of the only saving graces of the film. Her performance — which is in fact an earnest and actually measured attempt at injecting life into a film that is confused about what kind of movie it’s trying to be — is the best and most entertaining part. The film can be funny, but largely can’t decide that it wants to be funny, either as a campy or even kitchy riches-and-revenge story. There is no indulgent eye candy either: Scott abandons any focus on fashion itself and opts for a steely, sleek palette — to match perhaps the coldness of its characters and its central crime — that results in a somewhat visually inert look.

When news of Scott’s film first hit, each trickle of its production seemed to go viral — the first photo of Driver and Lady Gaga; the unrecognizable look of Jared Leto; the accents, the accents! This all came on top of the juicy family saga of excess, betrayal, and murder. The adaptation seemed destined to be an extravagant tableau. But House of Gucci never seems to realize it still needs to fill in the blanks to make a film — otherwise, it’s just gilded goods.