24 Lies a Second: Chic and Chico

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Chic and Chico

The post-production periods of films can vary widely, even in normal times, which means that occasionally busy actors can go through periods where it feels like they have a lot of films out in quick succession: Michael Fassbender had ten films out between 2015 and 2017, while Colin Farrell was in five releases in 2003 alone. Nevertheless, we can thank the current unique situation for the fact that cinemas are currently showing the second Ridley Scott-Adam Driver collaboration in the space of three months.

The new one couldn't be much more different than the last one, The Last Duel (which I thought deserved more success than it got). At least the new one, House of Gucci, seems to be doing rather better than anyone expected, presumably due to a population of a well-liked star in the main role and simple brand recognition (though I have to admit that for a long time I thought 'Gucci' was most notable as the name of the computer technician in Quantum Leap). I speak not of Driver, though he has developed into a versatile and charismatic actor; front and centre on this occasion is Lady Gaga, who as usual is played by Stefani Germanotta.

The movie sees Scott return to the cartoon-awful 1970s Italy milieu previously visited in All the Money in the World – everyone in Italy is constantly smoking, drinking coffee, riding around on scooters, fiddling their taxes, etc - although (despite the fact this is supposed to be a true story) events and dates have been jumbled around a bit. Germanotta plays Patrizia Reggiani, ambitious young daughter of a man with a large haulage company, who has a moderately cute-meet at a party with a spoddy, angular young trainee lawyer with very good hair (this is, of course, Driver). The film states this happened in 1978, quite a few years after the actual events; the rationale for the change is not obvious.

It turns out that the young lawyer-to-be is Maurizio Gucci, the disinterested scion of the extremely wealthy family behind the famous Gucci luxury goods empire. Not long after Patrizia discovers this, the young couple embark on a whirlwind romance (although it looks suspiciously like she is the one doing most of the whirling). When Maurizio's father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) learns of the affair, he quickly concludes that Patrizia is nothing but a gold-digger and disowns his son.

Still, their romance seems sincere and they build a seemingly happy life for themselves, until Maurizio's uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-owner with Rodolfo of the Gucci company, reaches out to them. Aldo's own son Paolo (Jared Leto) has proved something of a disappointment, mainly because (the film suggests) he is a moron with no taste or imagination, and Aldo is beginning to think about the future of the company.

Needless to say Maurizio finds himself propelled back into the bosom of the family almost before he can draw breath, such is Patrizia's desire to get better acquainted with her insanely rich in-laws and their highly-profitable business. Soon a somewhat ruthless changing of the guard is in progress at Gucci, but is Maurizio aware of just how intensely ambitious his wife is…?

The closing credits of House of Gucci are accompanied by one of those pop-opera cover versions, in this instance Pavarotti giving us his take on Tracy Chapman's 'Baby Can I Hold You Tonight'. I'm never really convinced that these things work, as the material and its treatment don't really go together. On the other hand, in this case it may be deliberate, as there's a similar weird kind of cognitive dissonance going on with the whole of House of Gucci.

On paper this is a rather bleak and tragic story, a true-life combination of Macbeth and The Godfather, with perhaps a twist of I, Claudius added to the mixture: how it came to be that the Gucci empire went from being a family business to nothing more than a brand name in only a couple of decades. Scott's approach is to present it as a grotesque, overblown farce – the performances and soundtrack invite us to treat everything as nothing but a delightful lark.

There are some big turns on display on display here, most notably Jared Leto's extraordinary performance as Paolo Gucci (the mauve corduroy suit Leto wears in several scenes is probably worthy of note in and of itself). That said, I should say that Germanotta gives a terrific and wholly credible performance with no musical content whatsoever: that acting career of hers could have real legs to it. On the other hand, it does seem rather like the ghost of Chico Marx is exerting some extraordinary influence over all the leading cast, vocally at least, and there are some delightfully unexpected bits of dialogue as well (someone shouts 'You big-a sack of potatoes!' at a relative during one family row). This is before we even get to the eye-opening sex scene between Patrizia and Maurizio. I would have bet pretty good money that the bout of marital grappling between Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette, during which they burst into song, was bound to be the weirdest sex scene of the year, but I may well be wrong: the thrashing around and grunting on display here is… well, as you can perhaps imagine, taste and restraint aren't necessarily House of Gucci's thing.

All in all, it is not terribly surprising that the surviving members of the Gucci family are far from delighted about the depiction of their relatives in this movie, complaining that they are being portrayed as hideous, overblown caricatures bearing little resemblance to the actual people they are supposed to represent. (Patrizia Reggiani, on the other hand, is apparently most peeved that Lady Gaga never got in touch with her to discuss her performance.) It is true the various Guccis all come across as freaks to some degree, not entirely unlike a sort of Mediterranean version of the Addams family: Jeremy Irons is a walking cadaver, Adam Driver is a geeky and gullible putz (at least to begin with), Jared Leto is a man with no brain, and so on. (Al Pacino is relatively restrained, compared to the rest of them, but it's still an opera performance.) Does it make any difference that it's not just Reggiani and the Guccis who are lampooned this way? (Salma Hayek is also off-the-leash as Reggiani's bonkers astrologer and underworld fixer.)

I don't see the Gucci family's reputation being especially damaged by the film, largely because it is almost impossible to take seriously for more than a few seconds at a time (and this is before we even consider just how one can honestly sully the reputation of people who already have such an interesting record of fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and conspiracy to murder).

More importantly, this is a very entertaining film, provided you like a certain flavour of black comedy – I have zero interest in fashion, as anyone who's ever met me will confirm, but I still enjoyed it a lot. The substantial running time floated by and I did come out actually feeling like I'd learned something. Not something particularly useful, but the statement still stands. Scott's usual deft direction and a committed set of performances come together with a good script, and the result is a very different film from The Last Duel, but just as accomplished and entertaining. House of Gucci is an overblown melodrama, but very intentionally so. Ridley Scott's success rate in his eighties is putting many much younger directors to shame.

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