You may have heard about House of Gucci being really bad: lurid, cheesy soap opera. You may have read about Lady Gaga’s over-the-top accent and Jared Leto’s outlandish performance. You may have decided that the film is a disaster and definitely no reason to go out to the cinema and risk catching some C-word virus.
The thing is, you’re probably not wrong. House of Gucci isn’t a very good film. Even if The Last Duel wasn’t a surprisingly strong addition to Ridley Scott’s oeuvre, most likely it would still be the weaker Scott film coming out in 2021. But the reasons for this aren’t Lady Gaga’s accent or Jared Leto’s much-reviled performance. It’s true, the accent almost deserves a mention in the credits as a supporting character, and Leto’s performance of Paolo Gucci, son of Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and scion of the Gucci dynasty, is often grotesque. House of Gucci isn’t subtle or nuanced, and it isn’t The Godfather but with fashion substituting for organised crime. If anything, it’s the panto version of The Godfather.
No, arguably House of Gucci suffers from not being lurid and cheesy enough. It fails because it has several very different ideas of what kind of film it is – and therefore ending up particularly good at none of them.
House of Gucci isn’t terrible. It’s the sort of film that can be watched ransacked for enjoyable bits – and depending on what you are looking for, those bits may well differ. Lady Gaga’s character Patrizia Reggiani, the woman who marries into the Gucci family and later pays some Cosa Nostra hitmen to kill her ex-husband, is larger than life, but she plays the character with conviction and an energy that jumps off the screen. If the film is taken as soap-operatic cheese of the most pungent kind, her performance is perfectly pitched and possibly the thing I enjoyed most about House of Gucci. Others might enjoy Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons) and Domenic De Sole (Jack Huston), both of whom seem to be in something much closer to Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic, something more stylish and serious: the old don who is losing his grip on the family business, and the young consigliere who is using the family squabbles to position himself to take over. Jared Leto too is in his own film, a grotesque satire about the ruling crass that makes the Roy clan of HBO’s Succession look tasteful and sedate by comparison – but, again, in that sort of satire, Leto’s performance, and his amazing-slash-horrific makeup job, fits.
But that’s it: the people you’re told are bad in House of Gucci? They aren’t. (If anything, Adam Driver is relatively dull and uninteresting as Maurizio Gucci, the man that Patricia first marries and then orders a hit on – and while that may be the point, he drags the film down whenever a sequence focuses on him rather than his wife.) They’re just in very different films, with different tones, and that is my main problem with House of Gucci. The script is uneven, it’s a half-baked and finally quite mediocre mix of drama, satire, soap opera and whatever else seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve compared it (unfavourably) to Succession, and I’ve read other critics doing so, but the comparison highlights how House of Gucci simply doesn’t have the same strengths, even if some of the underlying intentions may be reasonably similar. The HBO series knows how to make its various tones and styles come together so well that each amplifies the others. House of Gucci, on the other hand, isn’t written with enough intelligence and audacity, so the different parts remain separate. The film has a strong visual identity, brought about by the cinematography and costumes, but this aesthetic cohesion isn’t matched elsewhere.
Another director, one more at home with satire – or lurid melodrama – might have been able to counteract or even fix this. I would have been curious to see what someone like Pedro Almodóvar could have made of this, or even someone like Todd Solondz but with a more pronounced sense for different cultures. (I don’t think it’s the kind of material that Paolo Sorrentino is interested in, but I could imagine him handling the tonal shifts and the world that House of Gucci takes place in.) Ridley Scott, however, for all of his talents, isn’t the director to fix this problem. His best films have strong scripts, they go for a more consistent tone, and satire (or indeed comedy) isn’t something that’s regularly found on his palette. Scott’s craftsmanship, and his collaboration with an equally skilled crew, makes the film look handsome enough, but I’ve yet to see him direct anything, or say anything in interviews, that makes me think of him as a good fit for the material at hand. Meanwhile, the actors do what they can, from wildly different directions, but they cannot fix the inconsistencies of the script. (From what I’ve heard, Scott casts actors because he considers them a good match for the role and then doesn’t give them all that much in the way of character direction – which is a recipe for a muddled, messy film if the material doesn’t have the necessary unity of tone and feel.)
Even like this, House of Gucci is not an outright bad film. In some ways it might be more enjoyable if it had been bad. Instead, the film is just muddled and overlong and sort of pointless, because it has no strong idea of its identity. It is made up of individual scenes and performances that are moderately enjoyable, but the sum is much, much less than its individual parts. I don’t know much about fashion, but from what I have seen, my impression is that in this world you have to either be ultra-tasteful or otherwise entirely tasteless to succeed. House of Gucci can’t decide and as a result fails at both.