There are a handful of hard truths in the world, but surely one is that no one expects Jared Leto to be the highlight of a movie. Well, aside from Leto himself, obviously. That seems an especially assured guarantee for a film stacked with an epic cast of talents old and new and directed by a legendary filmmaker, and yet — Leto is far and away the best and most interesting element in Ridley Scott‘s House of Gucci.
It’s Italy in the 70s, a wild time where fashion and family reigns, and while Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) aspires towards the former whenever possible she’s already entrenched in the latter as a secretary at her father’s transportation business. The winds of change arrive when she meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a party and is almost as impressed by his martini-making skills as she is by his last name. Neither is in the other’s league status-wise, but they instantly hit it off anyway. Maurizio is studying to become a lawyer and isn’t that involved in his own family business — he’s on the outs with his father (Jeremy Irons, who didn’t get the memo that the film was going to be a mildly campy affair) who thinks Patrizia is only after money, but he’s still friendly with his uncle (Al Pacino, who absolutely got the memo in triplicate). Patrizia works both behind the scenes and in the open to change that by maneuvering Maurizio into a position of power within the house of Gucci, but the highs soon give way beneath the weight of lies, betrayal, and murder.
Those already knowledgeable in the facts of the true story, along with those who pay attention in the opening minutes, know the general direction where House of Gucci is heading. You know who’s going to be killed as well as who’s responsible, but a film like this should still both engage and entertain despite that lack of surprise. That, in turn, becomes a surprise then as the film struggles to do either. At nearly 160-minutes, Scott’s twenty-seventh film — and second this year alone — is a bit of a slog. Accents that range from the wobbly to the comical, a tone unsure if it wants pure camp or serious melodrama, and a story that can’t reach beyond a simplistic theme of “money corrupts” all conspire to make House of Gucci a fairly uneventful ride.
Thank the movie gods then for whatever the hell Jared Leto is doing here. Buried beneath some truly impressive makeup to portray Paolo, the flunkie son of Pacino’s Aldo Gucci, Leto is Acting with a capital A at every possible moment. He wants you to know it, too, as his every hand gesture and vocal inflection reminds viewers that this is a performance that simply can’t be contained beneath latex or deep scrutiny. Paolo is a sad sack who sees himself far more talented and important than he is, and Leto has seemingly been preparing for the role by going method over the past decade. It’s impressive stuff, and he helps make Paolo the film’s most — hell, only — sympathetic character.
Well, barely sympathetic anyway as the Gucci family, whether by blood or marriage, is made up of wholly unlikable people putting themselves and their bank accounts before everyone and everything else. House of Gucci taps into the Succession vibe in some ways — they’re all terrible people! — but where HBO’s acclaimed show succeeds by telling their story with wit, humor, and sharp writing, Scott’s film can’t claim remotely the same. Writers Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna set up the main couple’s arcs rather sloppily making motivations and ideals unclear at times. Was Patrizia after his money from the very first moment? Probably, but maybe not. Was Maurizio always morally corrupt or did power turn him that way? Sure, whatever. Are Paulo’s clothing designs pairing pastels and browns together really “a triumph of mediocrity?” I still wear cargo shorts on occasion, so I’ll defer to the elder Gucci’s assessment.
The collapse of a family dynasty due to corruption and greed is fascinating fodder on its face, but House of Gucci seems content delivering the basics and then dressing it all up in a little bit of glitz and star power. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures the former well enough with luxurious locales and opulent production design giving viewers a look into a lifestyle they’ll never experience firsthand, but what to make of this cast. All have proven themselves elsewhere, and none are giving poor performances here, but what’s the point of doing accents if they’re going to be wildly inconsistent and all over the place? Pacino’s doing outtakes from The Godfather: Part III (1990) while Gaga feels moments away from quoting a Super Mario game. Driver’s taking it seriously, but he winds up underwhelming simply by comparison.
Again, thankfully, Jared freaking Leto comes to the rescue by giving each and every word a pitch that rises and falls with dramatic abandonment. Every utterance becomes a questioning statement, every sentence an uncertain journey, and you can’t help but perk up every time he starts whining. It’s magic — perhaps accidental — and it’s part of what makes Leto the film’s undeniably unexpected highlight.
A supporting cast rotates in and out of things as associates, partners, and psychics come to play in Gucci’s dwindling ATM. Salma Hayek plays a fortune teller named Pina who befriends Patrizia(‘s bank account), and her presence is made slightly juicier with the knowledge that Hayek is actually married to Francois-Henri Pinault — the current CEO of the company that now owns Gucci. Jack Huston does some understated work as the family’s attorney whose loyalty ultimately rests with, you guessed it, the money.
For the little that House of Gucci actually accomplishes, a shorter running time would have been beneficial. At this length, though, the goodwill that viewers will have coming into it and meeting its characters slowly drips away with each passing minute. The dramatic beats we want are missing, the ones we get are somewhat redundant. It’s too dull to be fun and too silly to manage any weight. Ultimately, and said confidently without any sense of fashion whatsoever, the film is in desperate need of more pastels, more browns, and more Jared Leto.