On House of Gucci & Belfast
NOVEMBER 23, 2021
Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, and Al Pacino in 2021's House of Gucci.
idley Scott’s House of Gucci is a decades-spanning, nearly three-hour-long epic about a fashion family’s power struggles between the early 1970s and the spring of 1995. It shares a name with and has its basis in an investigative novel by Sara Gay Forden with a soap-operatic subtitle
(“Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed”), naturally getting one’s hopes up ahead of time that its subsequent adaptation might be a sort of modern-day answer to a special-episode event of something like Dynasty (1981-89) or Dallas (1978-91): a high-wire act of all-in-the-family melodrama so transfixingly sensational that you forget time is passing while you’re watching it. (The drama becomes a personal investment, almost.) House of Gucci’s inviting, well-constructed trailers, set to a groggy remix of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” heightened those hopes even more. Their flashes of tantalizing fashion, teases of dog-eat-dog drama, collection of amusingly distorted Italian accents courtesy of its mostly American-born cast members, and generally campy-fun sense of humor indicated the rare awards-hungry movie that would also be an extremely good time. One sensed it could potentially become a camp classic turned to for drinking games with friends if not for its peskily puffy runtime.
Fun is certainly had in the long-awaited House of Gucci. But I suspect it’ll disappoint people expecting an enjoyably over-the-top ripped-from-the-tabloids saga: the advertisements are better than the product. Scott uneasily oscillates between broad-stroked in-on-the-joke soap opera and something a little more serious; the ever-changing grasps for power between characters are less tense than airlessly repetitious; it’s invariably too long.
You don’t get sucked into the elliptically unwound drama of this lurid epic the way you would reading it in a scandalous tell-all format. (House of Gucci
climaxes with the organized murder of Gucci heir Maurizio, played by Adam Driver, by his red-with-rage estranged wife Patrizia, portrayed by Lady Gaga.) The film never has any real heat; it’s not roiling like it ought to. Maurizio and Patrizia’s tempestuous marriage acts as the movie’s center, and one wishes it felt more lived-in than a succession of biographical milestones being marked off. Driver and Gaga don’t have much chemistry despite both giving individually good performances; screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna only shallowly delve into their inner worlds. (The killing of Maurizio doesn’t feel like a catharsis but an inevitability in the movie.) Aside from its consistent-at-first-then-less-often liveliness, House of Gucci mostly plays like an expensive and good-looking reenactment. Surface persuasiveness overrides any sense of heart. You don’t care about what’s going to happen to anybody.
House of Gucci’s ensemble has a similar disunited ineffectiveness. Some cast members seem to be in a rather tasteful biographical drama (Driver, Jeremy Irons, and Jack Huston), some in a generally more playful movie that knows when to get serious (Gaga, Salma Hayek — whose magnate husband actually currently owns Gucci — and a delightful Al Pacino), and others in a full-fledged slapstick tragicomedy (an unrecognizably makeupped and predictably awful Jared Leto, it’s-a-me-Mario-style accent notwithstanding). With a narrative this unruly and temporally big-scoped, House of Gucci needs a solid foundation — a director resolute about what kind of film he’s making; a cast in confident harmony. But like the titular fashion brand itself during the movie’s timeline, House of Gucci feels shaky, vulnerable to the caprices of the people helping make it what it is.
What’s genuinely great about House of Gucci — Lady Gaga’s performance — makes it worth seeing. Gaga hasn’t been in movies much, but she’s an actress, last seen in 2018’s unmissable-because-of-her A Star is Born, whose knows-no-bounds musical charisma seems pretty much equally matched in her incipient movie stardom. Her behind-the-scenes preparation — speaking with an Italian accent off the set longer than she needed to; alleging to not break character for a year and a half; the bold claim “that nobody was going to tell me who Patrizia Gucci was. Not even Patrizia Gucci” — hit my ears as sort-of-silly, slightly unbearable theater-kid earnestness before I’d seen the film. But that it results in a magnetic-to-watch performance — the kind that shines so brightly that scenes without her feel dim — that I never eye-rolled as much as thought “whatever it takes!”
Part of the enjoyment of watching Gaga work here is that you can detect how much she’s relishing the opportunity to play a part made up of the kind of meaty stuff actors dream of. This always-scheming, chronically ambitious woman with little to her besides her unhealthily all-consuming ambitions who chain smokes and dresses glamorously and is presentationally a kind of Elizabeth Taylor manqué had a complicated inner life and a specifically outrageous way of carrying herself. (Gaga feels especially movie star-ish in an early scene at a discotheque — the one where her character meets her future husband for the first time — where she pridefully struts around in a skintight red dress with her crow-black hair lovingly tousled into a fashionable lion’s mane. She makes Patrizia’s certainty of herself, despite having no real reasons to be so assured, infectious.)
You don’t often watch movie performances detecting just how much an actor loves performing the way you do with Gaga. That additional dimension is perfect for a character never satisfied in the present because she’s always looking to be bigger than herself, fashioning herself into the person she imagines herself becoming at all times rather than finding fulfillment with who she currently is. (House of Gucci posits that Patrizia never got over her fixation on totally transcending her upper-middle-class origins as a local transportation leader’s daughter. It explains, in some ways, why this woman’s gradual loss of Gucci-related power turns her irrational — she’s been so fearful for so long of going back to her origins that her escalatingly close proximity to them after years away is enough to knock her off balance.) Gaga finds a reliable middle-ground between this fictional Patrizia’s silliness and sympathy despite the screenplay’s ultimate thinness. Her performance, one of the best of the year, has an I-know-exactly-what-I’m-doing singularity the surrounding movie could use more of.
elfast is, essentially, a beautifully rendered home movie. Set between August 1969 and the spring of 1970, this black-and-white coming-of-age story is a semi-autobiographical account of writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s experiences growing up in the Northern Ireland City amid
The Troubles. A top-of-the-class precocious type of about 9 named Buddy (Jude Hill) is his stand-in.
Belfast is an obvious attempt by Branagh to bring some real esteem back to his name after a decade’s worth of impersonal — and increasingly not-so-well-received — big-budget filmmaking that suggested his artistic peak was behind him. Clearly he wants to again become an awards-season contender and not just a ghost of one; the movie’s scent is unmistakably that of Oscar bait. All this admittedly made me a little suspicious of the movie going into it; that it ultimately feels more authentically heartfelt than cynical makes it more likable than I figured it would be.
Branagh wants you to know that his heart is on his sleeve. Belfast is dedicated to the people who stayed amid the upheavals, those who left, and those who were lost in the process, and you can almost envision him getting choked up as he inscribes those words on screen ahead of the closing credits. He really loves this city; he credits it with being the place that gave him his foundational love of words. Though Hill is a little too cutesily child actor-y for me, the infallibly terrific performances help the movie win you over too. As Buddy’s devoted grandparents who are always nearby, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are probable Oscar nominees. And Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, as Buddy’s on-edge and financially strapped parents, are also quite good.
But the decision by Branagh to wholly set the narrative from Buddy’s point of view gives the drama an inertness it can’t shake off. By design, it forbids the film from meaningfully plumbing the interior lives of the people raising him, or at all seriously interrogating the political turmoil of the time. The most we get are stagy outbursts of mob violence. When a TV news story detailing the latest goings-on hits the screen the power is immediately switched off by a protective parent — a missed opportunity to better illuminate things without negating the whole young and innocent and ignorant thing Branagh is going for. (We could have easily had Buddy watch the news story, not totally register what was going on, and then have him move on.)
And the black-and-white photography — a visual mode that gives most things a sheen of seriousness and/or melancholy obsolescence — mostly impedes the childlike wonder Branagh wants to incite. Though it is used to nicely evocative effect in a couple of scenes. When Buddy and his relatives go see a play, then a Disney movie, the art being practically inhaled by this in-need-of-some-escapism family sets the screen alight with full-bodied color, just like the first sight of Oz for Dorothy and Toto. (In one clever trick, we see the play bounce off Granny’s egg-shaped glasses; she remains in her black-and-white world, but the reflection in her frames looks practically fiery with its cracklingly colorful sense of life.) Belfast feels most alive in moments like this.
House of Gucci: C+