“House of Gucci” has a transfixing backstabbing allure. It may be a drama about a crazy rich Euro chic Old World fashion dynasty, with a cast dominated by American actors scheming and emoting in gaudy Italian accents, but that doesn’t mean it’s some operatic piece of high camp. Based on the trailer, a lot of people apparently thought that’s just what it was going to be, yet trailers can be deceiving. There are moments in “House of Gucci” that will make your jaw drop (which, of course, is one of the best things that can happen at the movies), and moments you’ll laugh at the sheer audacity of what you’re seeing, but just because the characters in a drama behave in an over-the-top shameless manner doesn’t mean that the film that’s observing them is over-the-top. “House of Gucci” is an icepick docudrama that has a great deal of fun with its grand roster of ambitious scoundrels, but it’s never less than a straight-faced and nimbly accomplished movie.
Directed by Ridley Scott, in what is easily his finest work since “Gladiator,” the film is absorbing because it takes the world it shows us on its own coldly flamboyant terms. “House of Gucci” is modeled fairly directly on “The Godfather,” and as soon as you say that it can sound like you’re making some ridiculous undue claim for it. I’m not saying that it’s in that league as a movie. (What is?) But the greatness of “The Godfather” was, in part, the way it navigated the hidden shoals of power, and “House of Gucci,” which is a kind of fashionista Godfather Lite, is a sophisticated true-life tale about the way that power actually works: in a business empire, in a family, among people who are supposed to be looking out for each other. That may be the stuff of soap opera (and “The Godfather,” as a novel, had links to the meaty potboilers of Harold Robbins), but when it’s done this well soap opera becomes intoxicating human drama.
It’s 1978, and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), a middle-class social climber who works for her father’s trucking company in Milan, struts through the parking lot with butt-twitching gusto as the truck-crew members wolf whistle at her. Patrizia, in what the film presents as a very Italian way, knows what she’s got and how to use it. At a disco party in an aristocrat’s mansion, she meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), a sweet and rather gawky fellow in oversize glasses, and against the throb of Donna Summer she perks up when she hears his name. He’s a law student, the scion of the Gucci fashion empire (but, at this point, completely uninterested in the family business), and from the way she pursues him, stalking him to a library to create a “chance” meeting (which it never occurs to him is less than chance), we might surmise that she’s a vintage gold-digger.
Maybe so, but Lady Gaga imbues her with a doleful sincerity. Gaga’s face is avid and open, with a fervor that volts through her eyes; she has a born actress’s gift for letting you read her emotions while holding a nugget of mystery in check. As Gaga plays Patrizia, she acts out how it’s possible to set your sights on someone wealthy and fall in love with him. Their courtship has a lusty imploring affection.
Then Maurizio introduces Patrizia to his father, the elegant and formidable Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), once a minor screen actor, now a vampirish tycoon with Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” hanging on the wall of his parlor. He’s the lordly co-owner and patriarch of the Gucci brand; he can’t conceive that his only son would wed someone who is this beneath him. Maurizio, however, wins the audience’s admiration for standing by his romantic convictions. He marries Patrizia (to the tune of George Michael’s “Faith”), even as his father cuts him out of the family fortune.
Scott, working from a shrewdly layered script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna (it’s based on Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed”), directs with a tone of deadpan puckish gravitas. Spanking the action along with Italian pop songs and snippets of opera, he stages each scene in an impeccable, neoclassical head-on way that has no ironic distance yet creates space for the suck-in-your-breath comedy of scandalous behavior.
As Patrizia and Maurizio, with their nearly rhyming names, settle into their modest life and give birth to a daughter, the film introduces the other members of the Gucci clan. There is Aldo, Rodolfo’s brother and the co-owner of the company; he’s played by Al Pacino with a twinkly rasp and a shrug of real-world materialism that makes him instantly likable. Aldo and Rodolfo have a détente relationship. Both feed off the company that has made their family wealthy (and was started by their father in Tuscany, where they still cultivate the cows that produce the magic Gucci leather), but Rodolfo is the artistic purist, lost in the past, where Aldo is always seeking ways to commercialize and maybe vulgarize the brand, like launching a Gucci outlet in a Japanese mall at the foot of Mount Fuji.
Then there’s Aldo’s son, Paolo, a frustrated designer who dresses in things like lavender corduroy suits. He thinks he’s got talent and does not, and Jared Leto, bald with a fringe of long hair, unrecognizable except for his flashing eyes, not so much speaking his lines as singing them, gives a delectable performance as this opera buffa wimp — the Fredo of the clan, theatrically crestfallen in his loser’s earnestness, with his insanely dorky disco moves, a flyweight Gucci who still, beneath it all, has the Gucci ego.
When Patrizia connects with Aldo at his 70th birthday party, she instantly sees that her “darling” uncle can be a way back into the Gucci family. She charms him, and he gifts her with a pair of Concorde tickets to New York. He’s inviting Patrizia and Maurizio to join the brand, and given that it’s Maurizio’s birthright, we think: Why not? Is there anything wrong with Patrizia wanting to share in that fortune? She glories in the perks — the free shopping sprees at the Gucci boutique in Manhattan, the company apartment. For a brief spell, she and Maurizio and Aldo seem like one big happy greedy family. But there are tensions, like a rift over the knockoff Gucci handbags you can buy on the street for $29.95. Patrizia thinks they damage the Gucci image; Aldo reveals that the Gucci company oversees them, because they’re profitable. (They’re the ’80s precursor to name designers sticking cheap versions of their labels in Target.)
As Patrizia, swilling martinis, grows more acquisitive, more stoked to assert control over the company, Lady Gaga narrows her features, letting a swarthy ferocity burn through them. We think we’re seeing the incendiary Lady Macbeth chapter of the Gucci saga, and in a way we are, as Patrizia twists the will of her husband around her little finger. But the beauty of Gaga’s performance is that she never lets us lose sight of the innocent small-time climber inside the schemer. Patrizia doesn’t know it, but she’s in over her hairspray-coiffed head. Hooking up with a television psychic named Pina (played with winsome cunning by Salma Hayek), who becomes her you-go-girl cheerleader and partner in crime, she figures out how to cut Aldo out of the picture, and she devises a truly devious way to seduce and abandon Paolo. All of which has a ruthlessness that makes the film feel like a companion piece to “Succession.” But here’s the grand trick of “House of Gucci”: The party is just getting started.
“House of Gucci” is like a “Godfather” that takes place long after Don Corleone (or anyone like him) has left the building. The aesthetic of the Gucci fashion empire — the heavy buckles and boxy leather, the dresses like form-fitting armor — is trapped in an older era; the family has no forward-thinking leader, no guiding moral center. But it does have a Michael Corleone: dear sweet Maurizio, who starts off as such a nice guy, and then gets pulled into his wife’s machinations, which baptize him in the ways of power. Adam Driver, in a superb performance, enacts the shifts in Maurizio with a supple chill. Maurizio wakes up and realizes that he resents what Patrizia is doing to his family; she’s tearing it apart. Yet in doing that very thing, which he went along with, she infuses a new ruthlessness into him. And he changes. He becomes…a Gucci.
You may ask: Who are we identifying with in “House of Gucci”? For a while it’s Patrizia; then it’s Maurizio. But this is a movie in which the driving force of our engagement is really the shifting spectacle of power. That, I suspect, is why some may find the movie wanting. If you’re looking for overripe kitschy malevolence, you won’t find it, and if you’re looking for a hero to connect to, you won’t totally find that either. But if you get onto the film’s wavelength, the pageant of dynastic corporate war is mesmerizing. This is a movie in which Maurizio gets cut out of the family, then rejoins it, only to see his wife take over, but she flies too close to the sun, so she has to get cut out too, at which point Maurizio thinks he’s king of the hill, but then, as he reinvents the company, hiring the unknown Texas designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney) to bring it into the 21st century, the company gets cut out from under him. And Patrizia, incidentally, isn’t going away quietly. It’s a lethal game of musical chairs, in which the House of Gucci turns out to be a house of cards. But the more it implodes, the more you can’t look away.