I’m sure somewhere in House of Gucci, there’s a serious story about ambition and how the concept of a “family business” is an oxymoron, but then Jared Leto’s Paolo Gucci opens his mouth and out comes an accent that can only be described as “Italian” in the same way Olive Garden is “Italian” and you can’t help but cackle. For those who enjoy the “Rich people are ridiculous” genre of shows like Arrested Development and Succession, there’s plenty to love with House of Gucci, but it sometimes seems like director Ridley Scott still wants to play his story straight. Those are the moments when all the air goes out of the movie because the characters are so broadly drawn that their motivations feel one-dimensional at best and completely absent at worst. But when you’ve got Lady Gaga and Jared Leto trying to outdo each other’s Italian accents as their characters battle for dominance over the Gucci empire, then you’re really cooking.
The film opens in the last minutes in the life of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), who was murdered in 1995 in a hit orchestrated by his estranged wife, Patrizia (Gaga). We then cut back to Milan in 1978 to see how the two met and fell for each other. Maurizio doesn’t have much interest in the family business, which is run by his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino). However, because Maurizio is smart, or at least smarter than his idiot cousin Paolo, who aspires to be a fashion designer despite having no talent, Patrizia and Aldo want him in the family business. However, the ambitious Patrizia sees a way to garner more control of the Gucci empire, which seems to be ideal until Maurizio decides that he doesn’t really need or want her anymore.
With its prologue leading up to Maurizio’s murder, House of Gucci looks like it’s going to answer a question: what would drive Patrizia to have her ex-husband killed? But the film never answers that question to a satisfactory extent because the motivations of the characters are so murky. I’m fine with ambiguity in motivation, but after spending three hours with these characters, I could not tell you if Patrizia ever loved Maurizio or merely loved the pathway to power he offered. We spend so little time with Patrizia outside of Maurizio’s orbit that it’s difficult to get a handle on her desires, so we can’t quite peg her as an ambitious social-climber or as one-half of a power couple.
Where the film really falls short is with Maurizio. While there’s some kind of read on Patrizia (there’s a great scene where she gets upset when she spies knockoff Gucci handbags, a symbolic reminder that she’s a knockoff Gucci family member, thus furthering the sense of her own insecurities and a need to further entrench herself as a Gucci), Maurizio’s motivation seems based on whatever the script needs him to do. Driver is a phenomenal actor, but he’s at a loss here because Maurizio doesn’t really have a clear arc. He starts out as a kind of shy, dorky guy, and by the end of the film he’s making power moves, but the connective tissue of this evolution is missing. The best you can conclude is that Patrizia’s influence brought out Maurizio’s more ruthless aspects, but the transformation feels abrupt and disconnected from the character’s earlier scenes.
When you pull back from House of Gucci and see that its central relationship doesn’t really work and that the characters are thinly drawn, the film should fall apart, but the performances keep the picture humming. While Driver seems like he’s doing his best to play the role straight, everyone around him is chewing the scenery like crazy. Again, you could argue that these are outsized figures and that such broad performances are necessary, but honestly, they’re really the only lifeforce in the entire film. Gaga and Pacino seem like they’re having a blast with the decadence of the characters.
But the one who really goes all out is Leto. I still can’t decide if his turn as Paolo is a great performance or an awful one. Something Leto seems to fundamentally misunderstand about acting is that it’s not a competitive sport. Leto’s modus operandi, especially since winning an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, seems to be that he has to make the biggest “choices” of anyone in the cast. While other actors want to disappear into their roles and find ways to support their fellow cast-members to create the best ensemble possible, Leto wants you to know he is ACTING. You see it with Suicide Squad, Blade Runner 2049, The Little Things, and now House of Gucci.
And yet every time he was on screen in House of Gucci, I got an electric thrill. You know how John Cazale’s performance as Fredo Corleone took the black sheep of the family and turned him into a sympathetic figure with a complex humanity? Okay, think of the most cartoonish version of Fredo and you have something approaching what Leto is trying to do with Paolo. In a deeper film, Paolo is the same kind of tragic figure, a man of limited talented and thwarted ambition who goes unsupported by the people closest to him. But in Leto’s hands and in the framework of House of Gucci, the character is absolutely hilarious. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to seeing a live-action Wario in a motion picture. If Paolo Gucci had sped by on a go-cart and went “Wah-wahh-wahhhhhh!” that would not have been out of character. It’s a bombastic caricature completely divorced from any emotional investment, and I could not look away.
I’m inclined to believe that if the rest of House of Gucci was playing at Leto’s fever pitch, you’d probably have a more exciting picture because removed from that tone, you have kind of a flat melodrama that’s trying to say something about how a family business cannibalized itself to make way for corporate power. As we’ve seen from Arrested Development and Succession, rich people belittling each other over their petty grievances as they lust for real power is incredibly entertaining, but House of Gucci never seems entirely sure how seriously it should take its characters. It should have just followed Leto’s lead and been a blast.