Director Ridley Scott loves pretty things.
He loves the way a fastidiously composed shot catches the light off the gleaming surface of something hideously expensive. (He’s made a few commercials in his career.) He loves the way an actor’s face, or an alien’s, cuts through a gorgeous shadow. And he loves the extremes to which humans, both real and imagined or docudramatically somewhere in between, will go to make those pretty things their own.
For Scott, “House of Gucci” is an entertaining if dramatically thin return to the fact-based machinations of the rich, famous and weaselly. Sometimes they’re criminal underworld tales, such as “American Gangster” (2007); other times, as with the 2017 Getty kidnapping account “All the Money in the World,” they’re criminality-adjacent, more about the ruthlessness of the crazy-rich.
This movie’s a bit of both. It’s bit-of-both in other ways, too, swinging from straight-faced drama to opera buffa extravagance. Lady Gaga, representing the former, co-stars with, among others, Jared Leto (the latter). Buried underneath prosthetics, a baldpate and a ton of USDA-unapproved hamming, Leto gorges himself on the role of Paolo Gucci, the most hapless of all the Guccis. He’s likely to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, because it’s such conspicuous mediocre work.
I wouldn’t mind it so much if it wasn’t so easy to name a dozen American actors (let alone Brits, or Italians) who’d do better, and without the aura of stunt-casting. The real problem lies with Leto’s unwillingness or lack of skill when it comes to simply moving a scene forward, with other actors, paying attention to the tempo required. He treats every second on screen as if he has all the time in the world. He gets some laughs; there’s a bit where he dances with Lady Gaga that is genuinely pleasurable and spontaneous. Elsewhere, you may find yourself thinking back to what the late John Cazale (a likely inspiration) accomplished in his tragically short career, playing variations on the related theme of comic, profoundly human failing.
Gaga’s the star and driver in “House of Gucci.” As scripted by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, the high-gloss and even higher-fashion festival of backstabbing stars Gaga as the woman whose controversial business practices after marrying into the Gucci fashion dynasty included hiring a hit man to deal with her pesky, cheating husband. Adam Driver plays mild-mannered Maurizio Gucci, opposite Gaga’s Patrizia Reggiani, who comes from a family trucking business. Her wide eyes like what they see in Maurizio and his legendary name. Soon enough Maurizio is horrifying his father (Jeremy Irons) with news of their love.
Let’s keep the narrative details regarding the war for control of the Gucci fashion empire out of this review, since a little surprise will help. As Aldo Gucci, Al Pacino enters that narrative as the New York-based patriarch of the dynasty, and exasperated father of Leto’s fashion-cripped, pigeon-loving Paolo. There’s a lot in “House of Gucci” about undeclared income, unpaid taxes and buyout offers, all well before the moment (in the trailer) when Gaga tells her husband: “It’s time to take out the trash.” Maurizio, at least in this version of events, doesn’t go in for overt conflict. (Typical exit line: “I need an espresso.”)
Ridley has never made a slovenly or unappealing movie in his life, and “House of Gucci” certainly is neither. It covers the late 1970s through the 1990s, which means the eyewear is enough to stop traffic and, indeed, in the case of Gaga’s sunglasses, enough to be mistaken for a six-sided variation on an American stop sign. Mostly we’re following these folks in Italy and Switzerland, plus New York. It’s nice scenery, whether we’re looking at the scenery or the performers.
The script does its job, dutifully, adapting Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book “The House of Gucci.” It’s tonally unsure, and the same, I think, can be said in this instance of Scott’s direction. He’s not especially deft with comedy, or a light touch; his romantic comedy “A Good Year” (2006), for example, came off as merely nervous lightheartedness. (”The Martian,” one of his best recent movies, was an exception in that regard — funny and dramatic and pretty gripping.)
In the “House of Gucci” trailers, Gaga looks like she’s coming at the material like that 4,000-foot wave in “Interstellar,” but the performance is better and more interesting than that. Unfortunately the material turns her into a Gorgon once it’s payback time. Pacino and Irons add their own contrasting brands of serene scenery-nibbling. Driver works thoughtfully within the confines of a very tight-fitting role.
We often take a talent like Scott’s for granted. He’s truly gifted in the realm of period pictures, all kinds; next up is a Napoleon epic starring Joaquin Phoenix. In “House of Gucci,” he sees the material as a cautionary, globe-trotting tale of greed, no less, no more. The movie does the job without diving too far beneath any of its lovely surfaces.