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“I am not a monster. I am a Gucci.” This quote arrives late in House of Gucci, Ridley Scott’s lurid biographical drama, and serves as a statement of purpose. Many characters in this film wallow in their eccentricities, using the brand’s allure to gloss over their criminal and immoral conduct. Scott and his screenwriters wisely internalize that their approach should be trashy, not respectable, so the filmmaker gives them a dose of delicious misanthropy he usually reserves for characters who literally attempt to play God. The costumes and production values are top notch, which might seem like a betrayal of the kooky, over-the-top performances. Then again, that is precisely the point: The veneer of respectability is part of what led the Gucci family to their downfall.
Throughout the script by Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston, there is a schism between those born into the Gucci family and those who are not. The latter group have their opinions routinely discounted, at least until it’s convenient for all involved. At first, this arrangement does not bother Patrizia (Lady Gaga), an ambitious young woman who courts and marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) in late 1970s Milan. Awkward and handsome, Maurizio seemingly has no idea what Patrizia is doing, and Driver and Gaga have natural physical chemistry, so they make a convincing pair.
At first, Maurizio wants nothing to do with the family business. He is a serious young man who chooses love over money—much to the chagrin of his father Rodolfo (an oily, droll Jeremy Irons). Instead the newlyweds live a happy, comfortable life away from the fashion business. In foreshadowing that haunts the film, Patrizia nurses her ambition for her husband. She ingratiates him back to the business led by his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino). Manipulation gives way to a full-on power struggle, except not everyone agrees about the direction the business takes, so a series of betrayals and legal struggles rearrange who controls it all. By the time Maurizio is in charge, he has become so assertive and independent he does not need his wife anymore. Heartbroken and confused, Patrizia becomes desperate.
Crime and fashion are practically ancillary to House of Gucci. Scott and his screenwriters have more interest in personalities, so the film becomes an actor’s picture, with everyone trying to outdo the other in terms of the scenery they can chew. Pacino gnashes his teeth through a performance that mixes broad histrionics and tender emotional moments (after years of shtick, it is nice to see him continue with characters who have some nuance to them). As Aldo’s son Paolo, Jared Leto sidesteps what Pacino and the others attempt. Under a bald cap and a fat suit, Leto’s mannerisms are so strange it’s almost like he is in another movie. Like Scott’s earlier film this year, The Last Duel, no one in House of Gucci quite perfects an authentic accent, which, in a roundabout way, pushes the film into camp territory.
Even among these acting legends, Lady Gaga is the one who consistently finds the right note for every moment and twist. It is a minor tour-de-force, one that veers between sympathy and vengefulness. The early scenes are a whirlwind romance, with Patrizia behaving like an innocent, but even then Gaga shows the gears turning so that the later scenes, where a betrayed, heartbroken Patrizia turns to violence, do not come out of nowhere. Whether Maurizio and the other Guccis realize it or not, she dominates nearly every seduction, negotiation, and fight. Rodolfo tries in vain to warn his son about her, although even he could not imagine what the new bride was capable of doing.
Scott may not seem like the best fit for this material, since he usually directs historical or sci-fi epics full of action. However, his nearly 45 years of experience entertaining audiences have honed his instincts. The director anticipates how viewers will process the stories they see, which make House of Gucci a gloriously entertaining celebration of wealthy people behaving badly. If parts of the film sometimes drag, the performances ensure it is never boring. His team assures that each costume and set has immaculate construction, and more importantly, his withering worldview succeeds as black comedy, and might be what the Gucci dynasty ultimately deserves. When we get to the final scene, where once again the name “Gucci” seemingly justifies anything, Patrizia’s delusion is both complete and horrifying. It is a clever, ultimately damning echo to the “monstrous” earlier in the film.
House of Gucci opens in area theaters on Nov. 24.