Despite the film’s A-list trappings — Ridley Scott directs a cast of Oscar winners and nominees, including Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Jared Leto — “House of Gucci” most often resembles one of those soapy 1980s miniseries like “Lace” or “Scruples,” all about lust, greed and murder among the rich and famous.
“House of Gucci” has a higher budget than any of those melodramas, and frankly, it might have considered doling out the generous shamelessness of its predecessors as well. This true-crime saga of the Gucci family losing control of their own fashion empire could have been a full-blown camp classic were it not so frequently dull and tentative.
The quintet of leads each seems to be acting in a separate movie (collectively, they remind us that “prosciutto” is Italian for “ham”), but the standout is Jared Leto, playing an also-ran Gucci cousin whose design ambitions are thwarted by several generations of the family. It’s either the best or the worst performance Leto has ever given, possibly both, but either way, it won’t soon be forgotten.
We jump from the morning that Maurizio Gucci (Driver) is murdered back to the day when he meets Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) at a disco party in 1978. He’s hiding from the dance floor, and she initially mistakes him for a bartender. But when she learns his last name, Patrizia goes in for the kill, “accidentally” running into the law student the next day and eventually bowling over the shy heir with her affections. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Irons) senses that the young woman is a gold digger and threatens to cut off his son should he marry her.
Maurizio calls Rodolfo’s bluff and marries her anyway, retaining his uncle Aldo (Pacino) as an ally. (Aldo and Rodolfo each own 50% of Gucci, which eventually becomes a major plot point.) Maurizio goes to work for Patrizia’s father — the film strongly intimates his trucking company is deeply mob-connected — but after Rodolfo dies, Maurizio inherits his half of the business, setting off internecine struggles for power.
As a shark herself, Patrizia can tell that family consigliere Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston) is up to no good, but she’s got troubles of her own when Maurizio leaves her and their daughter so he can move in with mistress Paola Franchi (Camille Cottin, “Stillwater”). So when Patrizia’s psychic advisor Pina (Salma Hayek, who definitely understands what movie she’s in) recommends a couple of hit men, and De Sole brings in designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney, “Penny Dreadful”) to shake up the house’s stodgy image, the House of Gucci will find itself in the hands of new landlords.
Screenwriters Becky Johnston (“Seven Years in Tibet”) and Roberto Bentivegna, working from the book by Sara Gay Forden, somehow turn couture, wealth and murder into something quite plodding. Even as they take liberties with the timeline — Maurizio and Patrizia married in 1972; they had two daughters, not one — there’s not all that much narrative drive. Apart from the occasional discussion of mall stores or bootleg merchandise, the movie never seems particularly interested in how a fashion house works or why the company made itself ripe for takeover, apart from Maurizio’s lavish spending habits. And if it would rather focus on the Guccis than on their titular house, none of the them truly register as real people; the beats of Maurizio and Patrizia’s relationship all play like a soap opera about the miserably wealthy, and Pacino’s and Irons’ caricature-like performances create so much distance that it’s impossible to care about the dissolution of their dynasty.
Harry Gregson-Williams score effectively takes us down the plot’s dark pathways, but the needle-drops tend to be both on the nose and anachronistic. Costume designer Janty Yates does a great job of making Patrizia always stand out the tiniest bit, in all the wrong ways; for all the discussion about how the Gucci family were relatively new money, they always know how to dress the aristocratic part to cover for their humble origins.
Perhaps “House of Gucci” should have been a designer impostor itself, going the tawdry roman à clef route rather than tether itself to a true story in which it’s only sort of interested in fully exploring. (“House of Bucci,” perhaps.) Or perhaps a filmmaker with a finer sense of the absurd than Ridley Scott could have crafted this tale as a vehicle that would go full “Dynasty.” Bad taste can be forgivable, and even an asset, in the world of fashion, but monotony is not.
“House of Gucci” opens in US theaters Nov. 24.