Sunday, December 5, 2021

Father, son, and House of Gucci


Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna (based on the book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed by Sara Gay Forden)

Spoilers: N/A

The autumn of 2021 has been, theoretically, a rich harvest for Ridley Scott fans.  In the span of three months, Scott's released a pair of films, The Last Duel and House of Gucci, that come off curiously alike: both are based on pop histories about aristocrats in crisis; both end in a vengeful slaying; and both occasionally find themselves under attack by a destabilizing performance from a supporting actor who appears to have arrived from a different movie, if not a different planet.  In the former's case this was the one-man frat-boy Greek chorus of Ben Affleck's bleach-blond, time-travelling nobleman; in this one, it's Jared Leto's portrait of a great family degenerating into full-on Eurotrash within three generations.  One of those was more usefully destabilizing; and in almost every respect House of Gucci makes me appreciate The Last Duel more.  The one respect in which it doesn't is that Gucci isn't wall-to-wall blue tinting like the night scenes in a silent film (even if it was daylight); it's "a normal," or at least what passes as "a normal" in 2021, which means it's still really grayish and airlessly digital, probably in a bid to look like a glossy fashion magazine spread, though in no sense are we dealing with, like, a Neon Demon here.

Otherwise, almost everything about it throws The Last Duel's strengths into sharper relief: for all its heavy-handedness, that film was a historical chronicle that had extremely clear designs on what story it was telling and why; even at its weakest, not for one second of its 153 minute runtime was it not making deliberate choices about how to present that story.  Gucci, for all its parallels (at 157 minutes, it's also somehow even longer), is basically a showcase for all the frailties inherent to the biographical picture when it doesn't know what story it's telling or why, justifying itself mainly on the basis of "well, it happened to rich people, didn't it?"  Yet the similarities seem stranger still when you learn that Gucci in fact represents Scott taking over a project long in the makingone that had once been earmarked, a decade ago, for his daughter Jordan, whose own filmmaker career had fizzled by the time she could have gotten to it.  Given that the closest this Scott Free production gets to being "about" something is its depiction of the difficulties faced by a pair of brothers' family business when their children prove to be inadequate successors, I don't know, should Scott's kids take this personally?

So what we have is the story of the last years of Gucci S.p.A. as a dynastic concern, as seen (though rather less so than you'd imagine) through the eyes of that dynasty's newest member, Patrizia Gucci, née Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a party, after which she follows him around until he realizes she likes him.  (In several "additional dialogue by Lady Gaga" moments, he compares her to Elizabeth Taylor; this is augmented by several "additional cinematography by Lady Gaga" moments where the camera is shoved into her ass.  Now, I kid: she's a lovely woman, it's important for the film that she is, and the film isn't wrong for reinforcing it.)  Unfortunately, this new relationship curries the disfavor of Gucci patriarch Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), as he sees Patrizia as but a low-class gold digger; but Maurizio pursues love, even willing to be disinherited to be with Patrizia.

Yet Maurizio winds up re-entering his family's orbit anyway, by way of his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), as a replacement of sorts for Aldo's more obvious failson, Paolo (that's Leto), who plainly can't be trusted to run the company, and can scarcely be trusted to dress himself.  Patrizia inserts herself into this process, pushing Maurizio towards stabbing his uncle and cousin in the back.  This backfires: she not only loses the nice chic geek she married in favor of a ruthless businessman, but Maurizio isn't even all that good at being ruthless.  The whole institution crashes into the ground, just in time for Patrizia to procure her estranged husband's assassination.  If that's because she's that murderously possessive, or because that's the only way to seize the remaining family shares of the company before he divorces her, I'm not sure, but neither is House of Gucci.

I know: you don't care about the narrative structure, or the filmmaking.  You want to hear about the accents, the that's-a-spicy-meatball, "wait, are Italians are still white?" hate crime that has apparently become Gucci's primary selling point.  I promised myself I wouldn't, because I don't really care about accent work.  But it's pretty unavoidable, so I should at least say, "I'm pretty sure that in Italy they don't speak Italian-accented English, so I don't know why Ridley Scott insists they do."  It doesn't live up to the hype, in that it's not uniformly bad: the actual worst is, surprisingly, Irons, who fluctuates between "Italian" and "British" almost syllable to syllable; Gaga is slightly overbroad; Driver is fine; and I think it's easy to confuse "caricatured accent work" with "Al Pacino being a big ham."  So it's almost entirely Leto, then, and I have no idea what Scott's goal was with him, except that Gucci is undeniably at its most riveting whenever Leto is onscreen, and we're in the presence of his defamatory rendition of Paolo Gucci as a freakish corduroy-clad gargoyle, who appears to owe as much to Borat, and Ron Jeremy as Mario Mario in a porno parody, as any other recognizable inspirations.  The really egregious stuff, anywayfrom Leto in every line he speaks; from Gaga occasionallycan really only be explained by a process that treats the film's dialogue less as "Italian translated into English because of movie magic" than "Italian-American stereotypes unaccountably speaking to one another in a second language they're less than fluent in."  I don't know if it was written down that way in the script, or if the actors did it on the set, though the latter's likelier: with Gaga, it's perhaps a shortcut to maintain her accent while keeping up her character; with Leto I strongly assume it's intentional comic improvisation.  In any case, "Chocolat-ah and shit may lewk the same, but they taste very different!  Trust me, I know!" made me laugh in the theater, and makes me laugh now, though I can't in conscience call it "good."  Certainly, it's not good to wonder if the drama you're watching would be better if it were an 80s underdog comedy where Paolo's godawful fashion show actually succeeded, he earned his father's respect, and all his rivals slowly began to applaud.

Well, Leto deranges the movie whenever he appearshe almost imposes that aforementioned theme of generational decadence singlehandedly, and if you wanted to give Scott the credit, he provides a funhouse mirror reflection of Maurizio's clean-cut illusion of competencebut productive or not, good or not, he helps, because the rest of Gucci isn't much of anything.  Maybe I've spoiled myself into thinking biopics had been evolving these past few years, but Gucci lives down to the form's reputation in most every way possible, winding up a shapeless bag of stuff-that-happened; even when it actively changes history, it doesn't feel like it had a reason.  Now, it gestures in the direction of all sorts of interesting angles into the material.  These include at least two whole different motivations for its might-as-well-call-her-its-protagonist, Patrizia.  Maybe even three: besides a generic will to power, and the (largely-unexplored) ambiguity of whether she loves Maurizio or just Maurizio's status, there's the more interestingly specific way that Patrizia recasts herself as more Gucci than Gucci, and responds in betrayed fury when they take that name away.  Gucci realizes this fairly belatedly, tacking on a final scene that attempts to assure you that, yes, this was what it was about.  But mainly Patrizia is the answer to the question, "what if Lady Macbeth wasn't good at it?", a comparison Scott invites you to make via Patrizia's weird relationship with the TV psychic (Salma Hayek) who prophesies her rise and fall.

Either way, Patrizia's the only character with anything like an arc (and, besides Paolo, any interesting emotional or plot activity, and I watched this whole movie and don't understand how Maurizio wound up where he does, psychologically), but if she is our protagonist, it's not something Gucci insists upon; after a while, she's practically demoted to the secondary cast, without any particular thoughtfulness put into why we're following, say, Maurizio or Aldo now.  Barely anything ever gets emphasized; it never works out what it wants to be.  If it wants to be a dark romance, it doesn't generate that kind of sympathy; if it wants to be a corporate thriller, it barely gives you enough information about Maurizio's takeover bid to make sense of it; if it wants to be a noirish murder thriller, it's almost not about the murder at all; if it wants to be a satire, Leto is the only actor that's always pointed in the right direction for that, though Gaga sometimes is.

Which leaves us with the Ridley Scott movie part.  It's fairly anonymous, which is a trap the occasional-auteur sometimes falls into, though even for Scott-the-journeyman, it feels more like a supercut of a TV miniseries, mostly done well but very rarely done with any particular flair, with maybe like a dozen visual ideas that are memorable, and sometimes not for entirely honorable reasons: there's a few scenes that just feel like playing with CGI, like an axial shot-reverse shot scheme on Irons and Pacino while they wear ridiculously large mirrored sunglasses that don't have camera operators in them, which feels like a "look at what computers can do!" demo from 2004 (though it's absolutely in line with the whole "this is a not-so-secret comedy" thread of the film); I think I like the horizontal arrangement of Patrizia in a bathtub across the 'Scope frame, with carefully-corralled, presumably-CG bubbles covering her bits.  (Incidentally, I could barely speculate why this movie's rated R.)  There's the first five seconds of a nightmare sequence at a fashion show that Scott lets drop entirely.  The predominant element of the aesthetic of Gucci, anyway, besides (arguably) costume designer Janty Yates's film-long raid of Gucci's archives, is Scott's resort to pop music montage, that you might think could be used to mark time during the vague slurry of historical events, and turns out to be a very bad map to the territory.  It's only thanks to looking up the date that George Michael dropped Faith that I realized that this movie, in fact, moves the entire story up ten yearsMaurizio and Patrizia married in 1972 in real life, and married in 198X herefor reasons I can't even begin to fathom, but even in the film they definitely didn't get married in 1987.  Even in other ways, this one feels like an actual mistake, with dialogue way up in the sound mix so that it feels like you're supposed to be paying attention to it, even though you aren't, and couldn't, because the song is too loud.  Let's call it "experimentation"?  Harry Gregson-Williams is credited with a score, but I surely didn't notice it; pop music (and opera music) is a constant companion, usually more of an excuse to cobble the narrative out of editing, than anything particularly emotionally on-point.

It is, even so, completely watchable; I've done little but complain, but even without much of a story, Scott's not a boring teller.  That's not a pass: I watched it, I'm "glad" I watched it, and sometimes I even liked it, but while I'm sure I'll revisit The Last Duel, and it'll even grow on me, I can't imagine why I would go out of my way to watch House of Gucci ever again.

Score: 5/10

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