Say this for “House of Gucci,” it announces its basic silliness right off the bat. The movie begins with a voice-over, courtesy of Lady Gaga. Playing an Italian, she speaks in English but with a stage-Italian accent. “It was-a name that-a sounded so-a sweet, so-a seductive, synonymous with-a power,” Gaga says. That name is the one in the title, Gucci.
Adam Driver, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Jared Leto, Jack Huston — it’s quite a cast — they, too, play Italians and speak in English with stage-Italian accents. It’s true that Hollywood realism has its limits, especially in the sort of swanky, splashy crowd-pleaser “House of Gucci” wants to be. But come on, the characters are all Italian. We know that. They’re in Milan. Most of them are named, yes, Gucci. Do they really need to sound like Chico Marx?
“House of Gucci” is the based-on-fact story of the unraveling of the family that owned the fashion firm, an unraveling that culminated in a shocking crime. Or as Gaga adds in that voice-over, “The last-a name was-a curse, too.”
Gaga plays a young woman, Patrizia, who sets her sights on a Gucci heir, Maurizio (Driver). In one of the movie’s more charming moments, she writes her phone number in lipstick on the windshield of his Vespa. Soon Patrizia finds herself in the middle of a struggle between Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), and uncle, Aldo (Pacino). A further complication is Aldo’s oddball son, Paolo (Leto). “Gucci is a family business,” a prospective buyer says; “that means family problems.” He’s got that right.
“House of Gucci” has it all: domestic drama, scandal, criminality, couture. Tom Ford, Anna Wintour, and Richard Avedon figure as minor characters. The clothes, the cars, the court cases, even the paintings (a Klimt hangs in Rodolfo’s foyer — the foyer, mind you). There’s an extravagantly muscular sex scene — yes, Gaga is a participant. Ridley Scott, that most expertly reliable of old pros, directed. In other words, “House of Gucci” is pretty much can’t-miss. Except that it does.
Part of the problem is that the movie tries to have it both ways, its view of the Guccis and their world alternating between adoration and scorn. The latter seems more deserved. The audience may not be as stylish as these people — well, even I’m more stylish than Paolo — but we can see right through them even if they can’t see through each other.
Trying to have things both ways is a problem. Failing to have things either way is a real problem: “House of Gucci” is too cartoonish for drama, but rarely cartoonish enough for camp. The movie is like an opera without music, and an opera without music is like a stand-up routine without punch lines.
Actually, it might make more sense to think of “House of Gucci” not as a movie but a serving platter. On it are multiple slices of prosciutto. Some are thin and tasty. Others are thick and inedible. One slice manages to be thick and tasty both.
Driver is very well cast. Maurizio is the reluctant Gucci. He wants to be a lawyer and wears his oversize glasses as a badge of honor. Regardless of what role he’s playing, there’s something slightly gawky about Driver. Partly it’s that angular physique, partly an innate reticence.
Huston’s family lawyer is the closest thing to a still point in this wildly turning world. As Maurizio’s once and future girlfriend, Claire Cottin (”Call My Agent,” “Stillwater”) nicely contrasts with Gaga.
In appearance, Irons’s Rodolfo is a cadaverous-looking cliché: swept-back hair, jaunty neckerchief, pencil-thin mustache. “To me, art, like beauty, has no price,” he says. Neither does talent. Irons’s prosciutto isn’t just thinly sliced. It comes with Prosecco, extra dry.
Pacino’s Aldo makes his over-the-top Jimmy Hoffa, in “The Irishman” (2019), seem like underplaying. Pacino won a long-overdue Oscar for “Scent of a Woman” (1992), wherein he famously kept muttering “Hoo-ah!” Here his performance is a case of “Hoo-boy!”
In fairness to Pacino, it’s Leto who gives the movie’s most egregious performance. Whenever he’s on screen “House of Gucci” goes from faux opera to failed sitcom. His Paolo makes Fredo Corleone look like Clint Eastwood. As a fortune teller who has Patrizia as a client, Salma Hayek doesn’t exactly dial it down, but that’s in keeping with her infomercial-hosting character.
It’s Gaga who’s both too much and just right. Patrizia is a flirt, a temptress, a schemer, a force of nature. “I don’t consider myself a particularly ethical person, but I am fair.” Patrizia says. That’s a totally self-serving remark, but Gaga lets us see that it’s not unjustified.
“House of Gucci” mainly takes place in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but there’s something very ‘50s about Gaga here. She’s a throwback: the glamour, the expressivity, the heedlessness. It’s the rare contemporary actress who can pull off a bubble-bath scene — let alone two, as Gaga does. When they first meet, Maurizio compares Patrizia to Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, she looks more like Ava Gardner, but close enough. As she gets older, she starts to look — and act — a bit like Joan Collins. “House of Gucci” does have more than a whiff of “Dynasty.”
Forget about Taylor and Gardner and Collins, though. In the end Gaga is her own on-screen self, as any true movie star has to be. She got a best actress Oscar nomination three years ago, for “A Star Is Born.” That title had it right. A star was born, a genuine, name-in-lights movie star. “House of Gucci” confirms that status. “I’m a very social person, a people pleaser,” Patrizia tells Rodolfo. She could be describing the actress who plays her.
HOUSE OF GUCCI
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna; based on Sara Gay Forden’s book, “The House of Gucci.” Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Jack Huston, Selma Hayek, Al Pacino, Camille Cottin. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 158 minutes. R (language, some sexual content, brief nudity, violence)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.