Lady Gaga Leads Ridley Scott’s Lavishly Decadent ‘House of Gucci’ With Guilty Intrigue

Great scandals tend to feature personalities that prove to be more fascinating than the crime itself. “House of Gucci” is all about its personalities. Based on true events, the story is the usual run through greed and ambition, where there are too many people crammed into the same legacy, so they all feel like its owners. At times director Ridley Scott struggles to find a real center for an immense story. What we remember are the people, who are gloriously tacky, brimming with ego to spare. Scott is fascinated by such inner elite worlds, which he has no doubt tasted first hand as a major director. He finds the perfect lead in Lady Gaga, who isn’t just familiar with the rich, but with those who will do anything to become one of them. Her performance stands out along with the rest of the cast by not playing a cardboard villain. Instead, they are portraits of the sort of pitiful people who can’t enjoy what they’re lucky enough to own. Having everything, they still fight over it all to the point of murder.

The screenplay by Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston is based on a book of the same name by Sara Gay Forden, which details how the Gucci fashion empire’s roots begin in a nest of very human impulses. Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, a working class woman in Italy whose father owns a trucking business. It’s the 1970s and by chance, amid the sounds of disco, Patrizia meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a party. While Maurizio comes from a family already famous for its brand, his own ambition is to become a lawyer. Patrizia instead begins eyeing the family business. Her defiant hunger to become a player in the Gucci house grows when Maurizio’s father, former actor and designer Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), outright rejects Patrizia for being lower class. More welcoming is the actual head of the fashion empire, Aldo (Al Pacino), who likes success but doesn’t give off hints of avarice. His own son, Paolo (Jared Leto), has his own dreams of becoming a renowned designer. Too bad he has no sense of style or even proper color pairing. As Patrizia begins to pit Maurizio against his own family, she begins to dive into a hole of corruption that will make her cross the deadliest line of all.

“House of Gucci” continues a series of films by Scott where he profiles the decadent ways of the privileged. In-between historical epics, like this year’s highly underrated “The Last Duel,” and sci-fi thrillers, Scott likes to let his camera gaze at luxurious homes where well-dressed characters unknowingly dig their own graves. You could rank this one next to his “All the Money in the World,” about the Getty kidnapping, or “The Counselor,” about a lawyer so desperate for status he’s willing to get involved with borderland drug cartels. “House of Gucci” runs a bit too long at 2 hours and 37 minutes, particularly because the screenplay can get all over the place. There’s not a central plotline here or even an actual main character, even if Patrizia is the one who takes up more narrative attention at first. The opening sections of the film are fascinating in how Scott profiles the class differences in Italy. Patrizia’s father owns a business, but even a successful truck operation is embarrassing for the Guccis. Rodolfo, who looks taken out of a Visconti film, boasts about how one of his scarf designs has graced the neck of Jackie Kennedy. Patrizia’s initial drive isn’t pure greed, but a thirst for a special kind of revenge, when you can show the upper class you’re worthy of entering their circle. Crushing them would also be lots of fun for her.

As we follow Patrizia into the Gucci world, everyone becomes another piece of the overall story. Pacino’s Aldo is suave and welcoming. He’s the definition of the nice rich boss who takes the idea of a family legacy seriously, refusing to give in to the idea that Gucci should update its dress and accessory designs to go with whatever is new or hip. Patrizia is shocked to learn Aldo condones a black market of fakes which bring in extra cash flow. Much scenery is stolen by Aldo’s son Paolo, played by Jared Leto in another feat of transformation. Leto becomes a bald, plump spoiled brat who is convinced of his own genius, has the manners of a child and can’t believe Rodolfo hates his designs that were inspired by a trip to Cuba. He’s also, ironically enough, the more likeable Gucci because his sole aim is to be a famous designer. Everyone else wants power. He genuinely wants the attention of creating something, like a talentless wannabe filmmaker. Under a brilliant makeup job, Leto completely creates a personality to the point where it’s easy to forget who we’re watching playing the role.

Then there’s Lady Gaga. Since her acclaimed performance in 2018’s “A Star is Born,” which won her an Oscar for Best Original Song and an acting nomination, the pop star has solidified the idea of being a full artist where she can play a part that has nothing to do with her recording identity. Gaga never sings in “House of Gucci” and creates a memorable character with a greed fueled by the cruelty of class divisions. It’s a guilty pleasure to watch Gaga play the moments where Patrizia makes the sad mistake of trying too hard to act like the well-bred. She’s the classic case of the person who wants the wealth and then doesn’t know how to handle it around those who are raised blue bloods. Patrizia threatens a female friend of Maurizio’s at a Swiss ski resort with snarling contempt. She could care less about telling Paolo his designs are great before stabbing him in the back. Gaga’s performance is elevated by that of Adam Driver. His Maurizio undergoes a subtle arc that toys well with the audience’s sympathies. At first he’s a down to earth law student taken in by the attention of a vivacious woman like Patrizia. Into the third act he has discovered the authority and assertiveness she pounds into him, becoming his own kind of monster. Even when he divorces her, it’s to then abuse the Gucci finances himself, free of her pressures. 

Scott manages to make high entertainment out of what amounts to privileged elites abusing their own finances. It’s a movie based on a downward spiral. What initially gets Patrizia and Maurizio into trouble is how they manipulate contracts and documents to take control of Gucci. Then Maurizio begins using company funds to live like an emperor. The truly darker realms of this saga come near the end, when Patrizia’s only friend becomes a fortune teller, Pina (Salma Hayek), who is pulled into an eventual plot to carry out a murder out of nothing but pure spite. It is this killing that will seal Patrizia’s fate. Scott, a master stylist, keeps us watching with his lush visuals courtesy of regular cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the intricate, baroque production design and as we would expect, exquisite wardrobe. He crafts a world of tackiness worthy of “Shahs of Sunset,” but sharply profiles the actual personalities beneath the wigs. The people are what truly grab us about this glossy saga, because all crimes begin with lives and the mountain of what ifs paving the way to fatal endings.

House of Gucci” releases Nov. 24 in theaters nationwide.