“Boh,” an Italian word without a direct English translation, is what Jared Leto’s Paolo Gucci spits at Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and his financiers, who have just squeezed Paolo and his father Aldo (Al Pacino) out of the family business. There, it’s a dismissive, disappointed “hmph.” More often, “boh” would belly some permutation of the sentiments underlying “I don’t know” and “I don’t care.” It’s the word you may want to use to describe “House of Gucci.”
At the beginning of “House of Gucci,” Maurizio downs his espresso before hopping on his bicycle. He pedals around the corner, letting loose of the handlebars, arms outstretched. He’s free, a bit high on wealth — by this point, Maurizio has left Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), whose hitmen are awaiting his arrival. “Female empowerment” is sweet.
But it’s also a bit boring, as director Ridley Scott’s version of it goes. We know how this story (Maurizio’s takeover of Gucci) ends (his murder, with it the family’s loss of the company). The hook of his version of the story, penned by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, is a parade of wonderfully hopeless accents and disastrously hopeless arbitrated camp.
The hook, when the film closes, has long been buried under a stash of tokens (all bookended by Maurizio’s dastardly drab murder). A better version of this film would have a booklet of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” slotted into its Criterion edition. Really, just look at Maurizio’s and Patrizia’s introduction: a meet-cute in a 70’s club in Milan, complete with unwieldy dialogue and disco. Later, there will be oodles of canoodling and emotional manipulation as Patrizia both falls in love with Maurizio and eyes his wealth.
Sontag, however, was sharp to point out that manufactured camp is a perennial flop. If her essay is booklet-sized, “House of Gucci” — nearly 160 minutes — is the extended (read: bad) cut, the pocketbook that’s about an inch thicker than pocket-sized. What do you do with that? Don’t hide it on a bookshelf; Leto’s performance is far too loud, in a bouncing-off-the-walls indefatigable way, for that.
Over on the Gaga front: There’s a scene where Patrizia is approached by the Gucci lawyer, Domenico (Jack Huston), outside of her school. He’s there to tell her about Maurizio’s impending separation from her. She breaks out in rage, Gaga channeling outrage and shamelessness into a performance that’s never outre or inventive. Gaga plays heartbroken and bootstraps ingenuity with charisma (aided and abetted by Salma Hayek’s Taro interpreter Pina), but her lines lack any sort of brilliance. So the beauty of Gaga’s performance is not the platitudes she dispenses, but something innate to her. She’s a master of reinventing her image — truly, the fame monster — and, at the beginning of the film, is the only one giving the suspense about her ambitions a pulse.
Also back at the beginning is an exquisite wasteland of fuzzy locations that blur together as the married Maurizio and Patrizia fly back and forth from Italy to New York City at Aldo’s behest. The Gucci chairman can’t seem to get the word “come” — here, there, everywhere — out of his mouth. As Patrizia transitions from Maurizio’s flame to partner, Gucci coats and belts and shoes spill onto the screen.
The film has a way of coming back to itself over and over. It cycles through its early themes — early love and raucous sex — and when it runs out of material, it turns to prestige drama and distress. Scott’s film isn’t ready to handle that. It’s too self-aware of just how farcical it is to switch gears on a dime. The result is a film that feels its runtime, fastidiously tuning its performances to awards bait while simultaneously understanding its absolute ludicrousness. Gucci should be the one laboring over the details, and “House of Gucci” is at its best when it remembers that.