House of Gucci (2021): Not Ethical, But Fair


One of my favorite recurring media weirdnesses is when one actor in an ensemble seems to have wandered over from the set of an entirely different film or TV show—think Jason Momoa providing a portal to the fun, campy, alternate-universe Dune; or Darby Stanchfield putting in episode after episode of solid West Wing character work on Scandal, the most outrageous primetime soap in recent memory. But until I saw House of Gucci, I’d never had the experience of watching a movie in which every actor was performing in an entirely different film. 

The four performances that anchor the movie each come from their own cinematic universe: with a loping gait and sheepish smile, Adam Driver somehow lends likability to Maurizio Gucci, the reserved heir to intergenerational wealth with a wandering eye and slow-burn lust for familial power. His depiction of the effortlessness afforded by capital—and, in the back half of the movie, the indignity rich kids suffer when they have to actually try to get what they want—does more to establish the milieu in which the Gucci family operates than any wardrobe or set design choice. His casualness is a useful counterpoint to the intense, Jeremy Strong New Yorker profile energy (I mean that as a compliment, I swear) that Lady Gaga projects in every moment as Patrizia Reggiani, a working-class striver who becomes Maurizio’s unlikely wife, then scorned ex-wife, then the orchestrator of his murder at the hands of a hitman. 

While the tension between the leads is necessary, the supporting cast takes the movie into full-blown chaos mode. Jared Leto’s performance as Maurizio’s large adult cousin, Paolo, is a breathtaking achievement insofar as I did not previously think it was possible to create something worse for the reputation of Italians than the continued existence of Rudy Giuliani. Thankfully, that damage is offset by Al Pacino’s work as Paolo’s father, Aldo—a spot-on articulation of the specific rage felt by an aging man with a wounded ego, built on Pacino’s hallmark indulgent savoring of every last bite of scenery, our most reliable source of cultural pride. There is a case to be made that Pacino and Leto at least received the same fundamental direction (do a vicious impression of a family member you hate), but that’s as close as I can get to a unifying theory, and it only explains the supporting half of the film’s primary performances.  

These inconsistencies might be forgivable—enjoyable, even—if the rest of the movie laid a steadier foundation to support them. But every creative choice feels like it was made entirely independently of the others, fostering a disorienting vibe that rippled through the critical response to House of Gucci; I’ve never seen less of a consensus. While some have interpreted that expansive range of reactions as evidence that the film exists outside the categories of “good” and “bad,” it is, in fact, one of the most average movies ever made. Its few truly crisp lines of dialogue are all featured in the trailer. The pacing is never quite right—it’s too labored in setting up details that never pay off, too rushed in depicting meaningful plot beats. And, if you’re looking for a Fashion Movie, just revisit the early promo pics that lit up Twitter for a day and then rewatch Phantom Thread. (Admittedly, the wardrobe blandness tracks with the brand’s creative slump and Tom Ford-led revival, but I don’t think I can be faulted for wanting a little more glamor from a movie called House of Gucci.)

What makes it salvageable is how Gaga and Driver ensure that their characters feel like real people, finding nuances that keep them from entering cartoon territory as individuals and make the couple’s well-worn trajectory—boy meets girl, girl encourages boy’s ambitions, boy realizes those ambitions and decides that he deserves a wife upgrade, girl is justifiably enraged—feel a little less rote. A more focused, cohesive version of their story would be an immediate entry into the Bad Breakup Canon.  

But in this version, even the dramatic dissolution of their marriage is not as gripping as it could be; the fundamental disconnect of their relationship is palpable through its entire lifespan. Driver and Gaga have solid chemistry, and he in particular sells the most pivotal moments in their relationship—when Maurizio rejects his father Rodolfo’s (Jeremy Irons) wishes and chooses Patrizia, and when he begins to resent rather than admire Patrizia’s passion and drive—but there’s no evidence that the two of them could have ever made it work. When Patrizia does finally exact her revenge, it’s not shocking or satisfying; it’s, as promised in the most trailery part of the trailer, not a matter of ethics but of fairness. She’s not driven to the fringes of human behavior because a deep love has soured into deep hatred. She’s simply settling a score.  

The whole movie sits in this frustrating liminal space, always both too much and not enough. It’s preposterous in its way, thanks mostly to Leto, but it’s not as preposterous as it should be. While Driver and Gaga playing recognizably human characters gives the movie what little emotional depth it offers, it also sucks out some of the fun. Maurizio’s murder should be a stunning dramatic coda, but it’s rendered predictable, a rushed inevitability, and not the vibe one expects from a movie with this press tour. The film is, on the whole and likely not intentionally, annoyingly true to life, to family, to relationships. Dramatic betrayals and fallouts don’t feel like climactic events but rather routine arguments that these people have been reenacting on a weekly basis, and will continue to rehash until they’re dead. Its roteness echoes that of the frustrating third season of Succession—another tale of a scorned striver spouse turning on their wealthy partner after the illusion of love falls apart—but at least those repetitive beats build towards a satisfying conclusion. House of Gucci offers no such catharsis, because doing so would have required committing to a deep inquiry into human behavior instead of an excessive escape, rather than waffling between the two.  

In short, I didn’t enjoy House of Gucci. But, in the spirit of fairness, I didn’t enjoy most things I watched this year. In 2020, I had a limitless capacity for anger and sadness, and connected to stories that vibrated at those frequencies. But I slogged through 2021 aimlessly, too exhausted to feel much excitement of any kind, a sensation that no one would purposefully build a narrative around. And yet I found it everywhere: in the disappointing culmination of Top Chef’s promising bubble season and whatever the fuck was going on with that Mare of Easttown finale, in the disorienting low-energy tensions of Zola and the onslaught of nostalgia-bait IP that proved unworthy of the anticipation it generated. (Forget Jared Leto’s accent, the real anti-Italian scandal of 2021 is The Many Saints of Newark’s failure to be funny.) Pre-2020 media—exclusively of the pure garbage and/or pure comfort variety—gave me the occasional respite, but even that had its limits. If the pandemic ever ends, I’ll know it’s over when I can watch early 2010s footage of a Bravo star walking into a boutique full of cold shoulder tops without my synapses firing off a reflexive Oh no, you forgot your mask.

From the trailers and from Lady Gaga’s press tour performance art, House of Gucci seemed like a promising avenue for escapism—a new weird thing to enjoy, but also a ‘90s-style Cable Movie, an avalanche of ridiculous moments and over-the-top line deliveries engineered specifically to keep you from changing the channel during a commercial break. (I firmly believe that a lack of urgency around this, by the way, is as much a factor in why movies created exclusively for streaming are so unwatchable as their disregard for the theatrical experience.) Instead, it was just a brief distraction whose shelf life in my brain was not a second longer than its runtime, and its disappointments felt like a warning about every other Before Times cultural artifact I’ve been craving that simply isn’t coming back.  

But maybe it’s not so much a harbinger of doom as a sign that my appetites are changing, or that my habits and tastes need to recalibrate for a new phase. Every new-to-me thing that made me happy this year—moving back to the Midwest, the Station Eleven adaptation, dating someone I genuinely care about, collecting vinyl, adopting a tiny dog, carrying her around the house like you would a human infant—is something that my first instinct was to avoid because it seemed too messy, too taxing, not gratifying enough in the moment to be worth the complications it might create down the line. That instinct isn’t necessarily wrong, I think. Escapism generates a larger number of unique chaos moments than investment, but they tend toward the surface level, easy to forget and quick to be replaced by newer fiascos; actually giving a shit is what generates truly compelling drama. And that’s why this singular moment will be the most enduring piece of House of Gucci’s legacy.