One of the things I love when the stock market takes a nosedive is the inevitable story that comes out soon after detailing how many billions of dollars Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg lost that day. You and I are basically decent, empathetic souls, but we’re only human, and so watching rich people take it on the chin is something we all find pleasurable. Will they recover that lost fortune? Of course they will, but any time the mega-wealthy are even slightly humbled, it’s immensely gratifying. Trapped in a culture that idolizes the oligarchs, it’s nice to be reminded that they’re not all that special or blessed with divine greatness. Deep down, they’re as dumb as the rest of us — perhaps even more so because they’re insulated from real life.
How you respond to House of Gucci may depend on how you feel about the mega-rich in general. A drama about the Gucci family’s fall from grace, this Ridley Scott drama is opulent and silly — a soap-opera Godfather without all the killing, although there is some of that, too. It’s very entertaining but also not worth taking all that seriously, despite the fact that fortunes are at stake. And as you watch the different combatants jockey for position, I submit that the best way to approach House of Gucci is with a dollop of contempt for all involved. If you’re the kind who likes to comfort yourself with the assumption that the rich don’t really have it so good, this movie will justify your belief system. It’s a whole film about the fact that the Guccis were a bunch of idiots who got what was coming to them.
Starting in the 1970s, the story follows several characters, but the principal figure is Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who’s a secretary at her working-class dad’s trucking company. But she has her sights set on a grander life, especially after she meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), the sweet, slightly nerdy member of the Gucci family who’s studying to be a lawyer. Patrizia instantly takes a shine to the guy, and his father Rodolfo’s (Jeremy Irons) concerns that this unsophisticated woman is after his money seem pretty well-founded: She’s not that classy, but she has expensive taste.
Nonetheless, Maurizio falls in love and marries her, although he’s not interested in ever running the Gucci fashion empire. With shades of Michael Corleone, he doesn’t want to be part of the family business — although, like Michael, he’s going to discover that destiny can be a funny thing. Eventually drawn into the Gucci drama after Rodolfo’s death, Maurizio will cross paths with his savvy uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and Aldo’s dopey son Paolo (Jared Leto), who fancies himself a visionary designer. (Spoiler alert: He is not.) As the company faces financial turmoil and private in-fighting, Patrizia sees an opportunity for her husband to lead Gucci to a brighter future — and if that just so happens to give her more power, too, she wouldn’t complain.
There’s a whole reality-television industry based around watching rich people be awful to one another — and back in the 1970s and 1980s, network TV featured programs like Dallas and Falcon Crest, which spotlighted fictional rich people being awful to one another. As Succession proves, we have an endless appetite for the malicious scheming of wealthy, good-looking folks, and Scott piles our plate high with such delicacies in House of Gucci. As someone who doesn’t know much about fashion history, just about every twist and turn in this film was a surprise to me, and House of Gucci relishes in the characters’ plotting and snideness — especially how Maurizio’s family members constantly enjoy reminding Patrizia that she’s not a Gucci.
A film full of wavering Italian accents, some notable makeup choices and gorgeous clothes and locales, Scott’s latest has a pulpy, gaudy quality. In a similar vein to his 2017 true-crime thriller All the Money in the World, House of Gucci has a dim view of the wealthy, but the opulent trappings (matched by the seductive palace intrigue) undercut that commentary a bit. Indeed, the film’s love/hate relationship with its privileged characters will probably square up with most viewers’ complicated feelings. On the one hand, we loathe people like the Guccis, who jet from one lavish home to the next, their troubles insultingly minor. On the other, it’s fun to watch the money, and you can practically smell the wealth in every sumptuous shot. The performances are big, the drama is juicy and Scott encourages you to dive in, no matter how much you hate yourself for doing so.
But make no mistake: There isn’t a single human being on screen worth sympathizing with. Even the likable, soft-spoken Maurizio turns out to be an empty designer suit — a shy, sweet individual who, after getting a taste of power, ends up as rotten as the rest of them. What the Guccis do isn’t evil, per se — they’re not orchestrating genocide or waging wars — but the lack of a human touch is monstrous in its own way. While veteran scene-chewers like Pacino and Irons predictably overdo it, there’s something oddly right about their over-the-top performances. Subtlety would suggest that these characters have recognizable human traits, and what House of Gucci makes abundantly clear is that there’s very little humanity to be found here. They have their empire, and they don’t want to lose it — nothing else matters to these ghouls.
The film’s dark joke, though, is that the spoiled, greedy Guccis haven’t had a good idea in years — success has made them complacent — so that empire is most certainly going down. For those who have fantasized about what it would be like to see Facebook or Apple or whatever implode, House of Gucci will give you a dopamine rush. It’s not just that Maurizio and his kin get their comeuppance, it’s how it happens, and that shouldn’t be spoiled. But let me just say that it’s often because the Guccis turn on each other or are outflanked by outside influences that want a piece of their fashion juggernaut. The Guccis are so rich they don’t realize they’re sitting ducks.
There are smart people within the Gucci family — Pacino’s very good at expressing Aldo’s frustration that others don’t listen to him — but those folks are outnumbered by narcissistic nimrods like Paolo, who Leto plays with such shameless self-delusion that I started to treasure his every moment on screen. Leto portrays Paolo as preening and talentless, and if you want to be uncharitable and suggest that perhaps the Oscar-winning actor is merely channeling himself, I’d only respond that to pull off a creation this willfully, gloriously pathetic requires some kind of skill. But Paolo is merely the biggest fool in House of Gucci, which dresses up its wealthy characters in the best threads and then reveals them to be such dullards that the whole film becomes an argument against leaving anything to your children after you die. These people need a little of Patrizia’s common sense and street smarts — the uncouth ordinariness in her that they despise is the thing that might have saved them.
If you do know the Gucci story — the film is based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction account — House of Gucci’s most dramatic moment won’t be a surprise. Eventually, guns get involved, and there ends up being a corpse. But while there’s no one to admire in this den of snakes, I found myself begrudgingly rooting for Patrizia, who refuses to be cowed by these condescending Guccis. She’s as close to a stand-in the audience has, and Lady Gaga more than holds her own against her more renowned costars.
It helps that Patrizia, at least as she’s portrayed in the film, plays into another fantasy we probably all have, which is that if we were around the rich and powerful, we’d damn sure do a better job than those idiots do with their money and connections. Patrizia is a snake, too, but she’s our snake, and we get a little comfort observing her do battle with these pampered dummies. It’s an indication of this trashy drama’s weird power that you end up pulling for the murderer.