Patrizia Reggiani — or at least the Mad Magazine caricature of her that Lady Gaga carves from the tabloids with Michelangelo-like artistry and precision — is one of modern cinema’s most voracious money monsters. And while the actress who so vividly embodies her in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” might insist that Reggiani married the reluctant heir to Milan’s greatest fashion empire for love and not the greed that she later grew into, everything we see on screen suggests that some Machiavellian bloodsuckers are just born that way (perhaps a pinch of self-delusion is necessary for Gaga’s bone-deep commitment to the bit).
The Patrizia at the heart of this frothy tragicomic fable is Jordan Belfort, Daniel Plainview, and No-Face from “Spirited Away” all dolled up like Elizabeth Taylor and rolled into a checkered $5,000 pantsuit that looks like the smell of leather. You can almost see the cash registers go “ka-ching!” in her eyeballs when Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) introduces himself to her at a party one fateful night in the 1970s, as that famous last name hits Patrizia like a whiff of cartoon cheese and sparks a chemical reaction that will eventually ruin them both.
It’s a moment of pure exaggeration shot with the poker-faced reserve of a director whose steeliness has bent any number of genres to his will over the years, and it sets the stage for a gaudy corporate satire that’s dressed in the seriousness of a crime epic. Or is it the other way around? Some movie-goers may be disappointed to find that Scott’s film isn’t quite the unapologetic romp that its trailers promised; that it’s less fun than it is fascinating, despite the arena-sized bigness of Lady Gaga’s lead performance and Jared Leto’s very welcome decision to play Maurizio’s failson cousin like a commedia dell’arte cross between Fredo Corleone and Waluigi (no last name given).
But this is hardly a case of a movie that can’t decide on its tone. On the contrary, “House of Gucci” is best enjoyed as a movie about the blood-feud over its tone. Locked in a heated conversation with its own campiness from the moment it starts, “House of Gucci” leverages that underlying conflict into an operatic portrait of the tension between wealth and value.
Like so many of the people in it, “House of Gucci” is determined to be serious in the face of farcical ambition. Confirming that she’s one of the most hypnotically self-possessed actors on the planet, Lady Gaga plays the already ridiculous Patrizia Reggiani as a caricature of a caricature. The result is a singular double-negative of a performance that gradually humanizes a social-climbing succubus as she tumbles back down towards hell; the film around her might stiffen down its morbid final stretch, but Gaga seems to gain even more control over herself as Patrizia spirals towards murder.
It helps that she inhabits Patrizia as an outsider several times over: First as a Reggiani in the Gucci family, then as a woman in the fashion world. Of course, her new relatives never let her forget either of those facts. Maurizio’s widowed father Rodolfo (a recessively scabrous Jeremy Irons in full Miss Havisham mode) is quick to look down on his son’s new crush, willfully ignoring the fact that his late actress wife was the daughter of a chemical plant worker, or that only one generation has passed since the so-called Gucci empire sprang out of a hotel worker’s head. The ailing likes to live in the past — not the past as it was, but the past as it lives in his imagination.
For him, Gucci is something that should only be worn by the likes of Grace Kelly. It’s something that mere mortals should only be able to wear in their dreams (Rodolfo’s motto: “No malls”). For the rest of the family, Gucci is a fortune, and globalism offers the promise of making it bigger. Rodolfo might argue that “quality is remembered long after price is forgotten,” but his unscrupulous brother Aldo insists that being rich is the only quality that matters (he’s played by Al Pacino, who goes big in a movie where XXL fits like a medium). Who’s right? Who cares. All that matters by the end of the first act is who has control over Rodolfo’s estate.
As for the gawky and bookish Maurizio, he isn’t the least bit interested in any of it. Driver plays him like a prince whose life is so enchanted that he can afford to be aloof about it — that he can hide behind a pair of oversized glasses like Clark Kent and pretend to be mortal like the rest of us. Imagine if Michael Corleone married Lady Macbeth instead of Kay Adams and you’ll understand the trajectory of his relationship with Patrizia (a relationship consummated with a jack-hammering sex scene that’s very funny, a little hot, and fully reassuring about the command that Scott has over this frayed material). Driver is naturally overshadowed by the film’s more colorful characters, but one of the strengths of Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston’s colorfully utilitarian script is that it allows Maurizio’s slow hardening from soft boy to scorpion to unfold in plain sight. He’s the most literal victim of this story, and yet so many of his wounds are ultimately self-inflicted.
If everyone in “House of Gucci” is playing a different instrument, Scott ensures they’re all playing the same song. There’s even a strangely beautiful dissonance between the sotto voce of Driver’s turn and whatever the hell Jared Leto is doing as the Connor Roy of the Gucci clan. Rendered unrecognizable under ~934 lbs of immaculately applied latex, Leto inhabits poor old Paolo as a black sheep in Technicolor, his sad clown performance worthy of three Michelin Stars even if it’s as true to Italian culture as a can of Chef Boyardee. On the one hand, he’s the only living Gucci with a vision for how the brand might continue to innovate in the 21st century. On the other hand, he’s also a balding doofus who sings every sentence like it’s an aria, and he’s maybe a little too into pigeons, so no one takes him seriously (the Frick-and-Frack dynamic between Paolo and Aldo is endearing to the end).
Patrizia is trying to convince people that she’s a Gucci, the Guccis are trying to convince themselves that they’re royalty, and Paolo —the style-forward Pagliacci of the group — might be the only person among them who isn’t as much of a knockoff as the fake handbags sold on the streets of Manhattan. Those imitations prove to be a crucial plot point here, interrupting Scott’s occasionally narcotized slurry of obvious needle-drops and brutalistic dramatic beats in favor of something a bit sharper.
For Patrizia, who cares less about being rich than she does the sense of self-worth that being rich allegedly confers upon you, nothing is as enraging as bumping into the invisible ceiling of class. She may become a Gucci, but she never becomes a Gucci, and so her insatiable thirst for control over the family business stems from a need to own the essence of something that she can’t afford. At heart, she’s no different than the blue-collar housewife who buys a fake Gucci bag in order to feel its residual elegance, and the idea that someone could buy that on the sidewalk for $20 rather than devote their entire life towards wrestling it away from the Gucci family itself is enough to make her into a supervillain (tellingly, if not obviously, the scene in which Patrizia makes this discovery is one of only two in which Lady Gaga wears something from the actual Gucci archives). It is, after all, time to take out the trash.
She fights for the soul of the Gucci family so hard that she strangles the life out of it, while all of the other Guccis are so eager to sell that soul they completely lose sight of how much it might be worth. That dynamic sets up quite the shit show at the fuck factory (to dip back into “Succession” parlance), and keeps this film moving towards its fated, clumsily handled finale even as the bluntness of Scott’s direction starts to prove wearying. The central gambit of “House of Gucci” requires the movie to be set at a lower wavelength than its performances, but that’s a big ask for an 160-minute saga about the late 20th century’s evolution from family businesses to worldwide brands, and a little style would have gone a long way. And as the Gucci name becomes disentangled from the Gucci family, it eventually does.
It may not resonate with the biblical weight of “There Will Be Blood” or scald with the hedonistic swagger of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but Scott’s film offers a shrewdly divided fable about the way things tend to get cheapened as they grow more lucrative. As art sells its soul to commerce. Maurizio was a Gucci, and Patrizia made him merely rich. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting place to see it than at a big multiplex full of steaming franchise shit over Thanksgiving weekend.
United Artists Releasing will release “House of Gucci” in theaters on Wednesday, November 24.