I have always thought that fashion does not exist in a vacuum. It requires support to make it impress as it should. You need music and lights, you need a sense of spectacle and presentation. You can’t just slap some couture on some impossibly beautiful people and have them sashay down a runway. All the elements have to be in place and perfectly balanced to stop things from quickly getting stale. I thought a lot about this as I watched House of Gucci, an “inspired by true events” drama that…well, let’s just say the elements are a little out of balance.
The film focuses on the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and his wife Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Shortly after their marriage, Patrizia convinces Maurizio to become more involved in his family’s fashion empire, and she herself becomes something of a driving force behind his decisions. Ambitious and determined to secure her place, Patrizia’s influence serves to fuel tension throughout the family and threaten the stability of the House of Gucci itself.
That sounds like a recipe for a tense, intriguing, high-stakes drama, doesn’t it? A luxurious, decadent journey through the decades, highlighted by striking fashion and music. Camp, sweetie! Fashion, darling! Yaaaas, GAGA! And that’s exactly what we get here…but sadly only about half of the time. The film is sold on Lady Gaga’s performance — and truth be told she’s the best thing about the film by far, and I’ll get to that — but she’s off-screen for huge chunks of it. There’s a lot of negative space here that doesn’t serve the overall narrative or feel of the film. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s the inconsistent nature of the film that come across first and foremost.
I will have to give director Ridley Scott credit where it’s due. For a film that’s over two-and-a-half hours long, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Regardless of the film’s tonal issues, it’s remarkably well-paced in a perfect, professional andante. Scott skillfully rations out the film’s kinetic energy so that it rarely drags or stalls, and he never lingers too long on any one story beat. It might not always be exciting, but it’s almost never boring.
The film’s biggest issue is its script, however. It often feels as if it’s two wildly different takes on the same story randomly shuffled together. I’ve mentioned the tone, and I’ll mention it again. It flirts with blossoming into the camp spectacle it probably should be, but it always keeps one half of itself nailed to the ground floor of a staid corporate biopic. Just pick a look and go with it; this mixed messages thing is not fashion. For a film about one of the world’s most recognized indicators of glamour and luxury, there’s a lot of uninspired, slate gray boardroom energy here.
The film tends to play fast and loose with both its facts and its timeline, sometimes to a frustrating degree. The script is based on a book about how Patrizia and Maurizio’s relationship affected Gucci, but it feels like it’s just saying that to avoid a lawsuit. The writers can’t get basic, verifiable facts right. There are only a handful of subtitles giving us time references, one of which is right in the first scenes, letting us know it’s 1978 when Patrizia and Maurizio meet for the first time. In real life, they met in 1970 and were married in 1972. But you can’t throw a bunch of disco hits on the soundtrack to a movie set in 1972, so the timeline got shifted.
And about that. There is absolutely no attention paid to period accuracy when it comes to the music in the film. That might not be too much of an issue if the music didn’t play such a large part in moving the film forward or if it was all completely non-diegetic. Right away, in those 1978 scenes, a dance party is scored to Donna Summer’s “On The Radio” from 1979. While the soundtrack is without a doubt what the kids might call “killer”, from the standpoint of someone who’s studied pop music and disco specifically, it’s a little jarring.
However, as the film moved forward I started to realize that historical and temporal accuracy is not a part of this story. That’s why this film is just “inspired” by true events and not based upon them. Scott and the screenwriters aren’t concerned as much with telling a true story as they are an emotional and dramatic one, which just makes the film’s inconsistent tone all the more frustrating. The gulf between what the filmmakers’ intentions and their execution is sort of omnipresent, and the key to enjoying the film is keying into that liminal groove. It’s not the easiest path to follow, but it can be done.
The thing that holds the film together, and by far the best thing about it, is Lady Gaga. Gaga proved her acting skills with 2018’s A Star Is Born. She received an Oscar nomination for her very first leading role in a film. However, the earthy and earnest Ally from that film is a far, far cry from the silent predator, Lady Macbeth vibe of Patrizia Reggiani. Never fear, though: Gaga nails it. She’s an elemental force to be reckoned with here, by far the most committed member of the cast, able to make Patrizia sympathetic even during her most sinister moments. This a fully-realized performance, and without it the film might have completely fallen apart. It also goes without saying that Gaga never looks nothing less than flawless, even when Patrizia’s in her lowest and most vulnerable places.
Gaga’s dedication to the role often highlights what’s lacking in her supporting cast, which is the very definition of a mixed bag. Adam Driver compliments Gaga’s energy as Maurizio, and he might have the most difficult evolution of any of the characters to contend with in that he has one at all. Maurizio goes from a sort of awkward nerd to a mature corporate type but never really loses his idealism or geniality, and Driver wears the character like a tailored suit. If Patrizia is ruled by unchecked emotion, Maurizio runs on rational romanticism. It’s a volatile duet played by the two of them that seems destined for discord but the interplay is fascinating to watch.
But the rest of the cast…hoo boy. The rest of the Gucci principals are played by decorated actors who make some pretty baffling decisions that never once saw an editor. Jeremy Irons does very little as Maurizio’s father Rodolfo, rarely seeming like he’s even present and barely even bothering with even a hint of an Italian accent. (Say what you want about Gaga’s accent, but at least it’s consistent.) Al Pacino similarly seems to coast as Maruizio’s uncle Aldo, but at least he’s charming about it. An unrecognizable Jared Leto plays the family’s black sheep Paolo, and he seems dropped in from a completely different, campier movie; although he is still quite amusing, often because of his character’s incongruity. Selma Hayek makes an impression in her small role as Giuseppina Auriemma, Patrizia’s personal tarot reader and spiritual adviser, but she isn’t on screen nearly as much as she should be.
Let’s be clear about one thing when it comes to House of Gucci: this is Gaga’s show, and the rest of us are just supporting players in it. Gaga is the core of this film. She’s the center that keeps this film afloat when it would otherwise drown in its own inconsistencies. She sets the standard for the rest of the cast, and her dedication cannot be overstated. Even she has a hard time making the film the true spectacle of the season that it needs to be, though. This is more ready-to-wear than haute couture, sweetie. But you know, I’d still buy it for the right price.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-