The reviews are in: “House of Gucci” is a highly fashionable and well-intentioned attempt at an epic, true crime drama that simply overextends itself. The costume and makeup design go above and beyond, and the star-studded cast does its best, but some of the film’s issues run too deep to make it a real home run.
Gaga went Gucci with co-star Adam Driver in the rendition of the true story of Patrizia Reggiani, or “The Black Widow.” Reggiani was an outsider who married into the Gucci family dynasty after meeting heir Maurizio Gucci (played by Driver) at a party in 1970. She was famously convicted of arranging the assassination of her ex-husband a year after their divorce in 1994. The movie adapts Sara Gay Forden’s book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamor and Greed” and chronicles the couple’s life, from meet-cute to marriage to murder.
TV series like “American Crime Story” have tackled the scandalous, true crime history of major fashion houses before. In 2018, the second installment of American Crime Story, titled “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” explored the life of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), who shot and killed the fashion god in front of his Miami Beach mansion in 1997. The series gained critical success, winning seven Emmys out of its 18 total nominations.
In “Assassination of Giulian Versace: American Crime Story,” Penélope Cruz took on the key role of Donatella Versace, sister of Gianni and surviving heiress of the Versace fortune. Critics praised Cruz’s transformation, and she was approached to portray Reggiani as well. Eventually, however, Lady Gaga was officially cast. The role, her second major film role following “A Star Is Born” (wherein she was also noted for excellent romantic chemistry with her co-star), shows how much the world-famous pop star has to contribute to pop culture through the big screen.
Lady Gaga Carries
Despite mixed reviews, most agree that Gaga’s portrayal of the disgraced Reggiani shines the brightest. Some say it’s worth watching for her performance even if the rest of the film registers as lukewarm. Her charming and confident Patrizia plays well against Driver’s endearingly socially awkward Maurizio, and they have enough chemistry to pull off a convincing love story — before it begins to devolve, at least.
It’s a good thing critics and audiences alike seem to enjoy Gaga’s performance, since she put herself through hell, saying she repeatedly threw up from anxiety during shooting. All the while, she employed method acting techniques, like speaking in Reggiani’s accent for nine months (though her accent unfortunately remains the worst part of her performance) and using sense memory techniques to connect Reggiani’s trauma to her own history — the latter to the point that director Ridley Scott had to intervene.
Despite the worrying side of Gaga’s experience on set, fans can appreciate the singer’s wholehearted approach to the role. Gaga has built her career off avant-garde performances that go beyond just music. Now, fans know for sure that her performance ability and extreme dedication translate impressively on screen. We can hopefully expect more from her acting career in the future.
One Rotten Tomatoes user writes, “The acting was beyond words. Lady Gaga became the character within minutes and the story was gripping. The time just went by and it was ending. Great, great show.” Rolling Stone’s David Fear agrees, “If the film is remembered for anything, it’s for being Exhibit A as what a great actor [Lady Gaga] is. Forget Gucci. Long live the house that Gaga built.”
A Confused Personality
Despite being in the works since 2006, Scott’s take on the downfall of Gucci is riddled with problems of its own. One of the main issues at the heart of the film is (bad Italian accents aside) tone confusion. As Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus states, “House of Gucci vacillates between inspired camp and dour drama too often to pull off a confident runway strut, but Lady Gaga’s note-perfect performance has a timeless style all its own.”
Characters like Jared Leto’s Paolo Gucci add some levity to the movie, but his flippant Italian hand motions and general eccentric comicalness fall flat in their own right — and add a discordant note against the more serious (though often melodramatic) performances of the other characters. While a darker and more somber approach bypasses the potentially negative ethical implications of the true crime genre, it flattens out the blockbuster spectacle and moments of camp that keep the film afloat.
The confusion over what kind of movie “House of Gucci” wanted to be began before it even hit theaters. As Tara Bennett reviewed for IGN, based on the trailer, the movie “could’ve been anything from black comedy camp to an arch godfather-like drama.” This confusion persists throughout the film.
The Ambition Problem
Part of its disjointed personality problem comes from its overambitious attempt to spotlight all of its celebrity cast, losing the benefit of a more consistent single character’s perspective on the events. While Gaga and Driver become the de facto stars, the narrative drifts from their central role too easily. The places where the film focuses on Patrizia and Mauricio most closely — namely their love story in the first act — remain the strongest.
Despite building sympathy for the couple throughout the first hour or so, the plot takes a turn as Patrizia grows into the opportunistic gold digger that Rodolfo Gucci, Maurizio’s father, believed her to be all along. The quick transition from victim of family dynamics to plotting Lady Macbeth-like character who pressures her husband to engage in politics against his will does not feel fully earned. There’s no clear motive since, after all, the couple is still enjoying exorbitant amounts of wealth.
Critic Tim Cogshell writes, “It’s mostly that big fight over that fortune, about how absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And maybe ambition for ambition’s sake might be a fine trope if it had been foreshadowed better in Patrizia’s character in the first act. As it is, we see her go from a kind of sweet character to an explosively jealous, angry and antagonistic one with relatively little provocation. If this was Scott’s hot take on the corruption of privilege and power, it should’ve felt less arbitrary in the film.
The more dramatic back half of the movie sacrifices the intimacy that made the first part so compelling, turning instead toward a spectacle of family politics that drags on too long. Quite simply, the movie loses viewers’ good faith as it drags on toward the three-hour mark. While the project rises to the ambitious challenge of recreating distinctive ‘70s haute couture looks, it fails to live up to its unnecessarily long runtime of 2 hours, 37 minutes.
Visually stunning or not, a movie has to earn its right to run beyond two hours. Unfortunately, “House of Gucci” does not deliver an epic capable of filling the enormous shoes of movies like “Titanic,” “Schindler’s List,” “Seven Samurai,” “The Godfather: Part II” or “The Irishman.”
Is Film the Right Medium?
Everyone loves a drama based on a true story, and it’s even more thrilling when those real stories are based on larger-than-life characters that place narratives somewhere between myth and true crime. True crime is extremely popular right now, and shows like Murphy’s “American Crime Story” prove the ongoing desire for dramatizations of recent history. Additionally, fashion-based true crime lets viewers and listeners indulge in the genre without sensationalizing the victims, which in turn harms their families. The Gucci family did call the film “insulting,” but it feels like fairer game when it concerns an already highly sensationalized celebrity family.
Whether or not audiences believe “House of Gucci” lived up to the hype, the film shows the amount of potential for dramatizing the scandalous and surprisingly crime-driven world of high fashion and other cultural mammoths. The only question now for this onscreen trend is who will take it on better: filmmakers or showrunners?
The pacing problems in “House of Gucci” begs the question of whether there is any compelling artistic reason to choose the big screen over little screen when it comes to narratives such as this. Shows like “American Crime Story” receive consistent praise despite their format. With a limited series, there is room to play with tone, build in multiple climaxes and cover lots of ground without exhausting the audience. Perhaps, “House of Gucci” would’ve dazzled better on a streaming platform where it could’ve leaned into being what Independent UK’s Clarisse Loughrey calls “a titillating, ridiculous and utterly engrossing soap opera.”