Producers: Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, Kevin J. Walsh and Mark Huffam   Director: Ridley Scott   Screenplay: Becky Johnson and Roberto Bentivegna   Cast: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Jack Huston, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino, Camille Cottin, Reeve Carney, Vincent Riotta, Alexia Muray, Mia McGovern Zaini, Florence Andrews, Mădălina Diana Ghenea, Youssef Kerkour, Mehdi Nebbou, Miloud Mourad Benamara, Antonello Annunziata, Catherine Walker and Martino Palmisano   Distributor: United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Grade: C

Ridley Scott’s recent films have all shown a curious preoccupation with true-life scandal among the rich and powerful.  First there was “All the Money in the World,” about the complications surrounding the ransoming of J. Paul Getty’s kidnapped grandson.  Then a few weeks ago came “The Last Duel,” about a fourteenth-century rape case among the French feudal nobility.  Now we have the seamy tale of the machinations over control of the famous Italian fashion house, which included multiple double-crosses, both domestic and professional, and eventually a contract murder.

“House of Gucci” is a very peculiar movie.  At times it seems an attempt at barbed social satire; at others, a campy farce.  Mostly, though, it resembles a sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek account of a dysfunctional family unravelling under the stress of greed and one-upmanship—a sort of “Dallas” with haute couture rather than oil wells.  Unable to decide on a consistent tone, it tries on all of them, and ultimately is fully satisfying at none.  (The movie can’t even make up its mind about a background score.  There’s a fairly conventional underlying one by Harry Gregson-Williams, but it’s interrupted at some points by snatches of popular songs, and at others by bits of Italian opera.)

Among the characters actually born with the name of Gucci, the most important to the plot is Mauricio (Adam Driver), son of patrician ex-actor Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who shares ownership of the family fashion business with his lavishly extrovert brother Aldo (Al Pacino).  Gregarious Aldo really runs the company while Rodolfo remains in the background, effetely tending to the firm’s reputation. 

Mauricio isn’t much interested in fashion.  He’s a bookish, intellectual sort who plans a career in law.  But Aldo has his eye on him, because he’s intelligent and detail-oriented, while he sees his own son Paolo (Jared Leto), an effusive sort who dreams of being a designer though he has no taste, as an idiot.

Snooty Rodolfo isn’t opposed to Mauricio going into the business, but he is to his son getting serious about marriage with Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), whom he correctly perceives to be a very common gold-digger who has set out to entrap him.  (She doesn’t bother Aldo, since they both share more than a hint of oversized vulgarity and a theatrical air.)  Mauricio chooses her over his dying father, and Aldo her husband over his own son, who goes off in a raging funk determined to make it on his own.  Observing the fraught scenario from the sidelines is the family’s suavely calculating legal advisor Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston).

So after a hiatus working in the truck firm owned by his father-in-law (Vincent Riotta) and living a simple, middle-class life, Mauricio agrees, under Patrizia’s prodding, to accept Aldo’s invitation to join the business, and she revels in their new financial and social status.  Her manipulations continue, though, and Mauricio changes into a calculating double-dealer as well.  Ultimately Aldo joins Paolo among their victims. 

But problems arise.  Some are with the business, which has trouble maintaining its edge and its profits; that leads to unwise decisions about investment partners and sketchy bookkeeping.  Others are personal, as fastidious Mauricio becomes disenchanted with Patrizia and gravitates toward Paola Franchi (Camille Cottin).  Divorce becomes inevitable, but the scorned woman cannot swallow her husband’s decision, and together with her confidante, TV psychic Giuseppina Auriemma (Salma Hayek), plots revenge.

The family alone provides a wide range of characters, but the screenplay by Becky Johnson and Roberto Bentivegna, based on Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 non-fiction book, sees fit to introduce plenty of others, including Reeve Carney’s Tom Ford, the wunderkind designer brought in to halt Gucci’s slide into irrelevancy—and its budgetary woes.  Other fashion icons and critics, as well as movie stars like Sophia Loren, make brief fly-bys as well, leaving one to conclude that when Mauricio, as their marriage decays, criticizes Patrizia for including too many details in a story she’s telling, he might be commenting on the movie too.

That doesn’t mean you can’t admire the classiness of the visuals—Arthur Max’s production design and Janty Yates’s costumes, so important to a project like this, are splendid—and while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography lacks the pizzazz one might have hoped for, it’s certainly slick.  Claire Simpson’s editing is also smoothly efficient; it’s not her fault that the script’s refusal to simplify matters a bit, and Scott’s oddly plodding approach to the material, result in an epic running-time the material doesn’t deserve.

There’s also fun to be had in some of the performances.  Lady Gaga is ferociously over-the-top throughout; there’s little nuance to her turn, but she grabs the character and runs with it.  Pacino, too, is free with extravagant gestures; it’s a fairly typical late-career effort from an actor who no longer feels any need to tone down the volubility.  Both of them, however, are outdone by Leto, encased in makeup that leaves him virtually unrecognizable.  He makes Paolo, the whining misfit in the family, a caricature of the wildly gesticulating, earthy Italian.  Hayek adds a further dose of amusement as the money-grubbing mystic happy to latch onto Patrizia’s star—a scene of her and Gaga taking side-by-side mud baths as they plan strategy suggests the wicked riot the whole movie might have been. 

By contrast Irons just brings his customary snobbishness to Rodolfo, and Driver is stuck in understated mode.  Worse, though, is his inability to make Maurizio’s transformation from geeky and studious to steely-eyed and ruthless credible.  It’s not really his fault, because in this the script, as in so many instances, is content merely to declare that people have changed rather than showing us how and why they do, despite its great length.  Had some of the unnecessary detail been pruned away, the characterization could have been less broad and more layered.

And so “House of Gucci” emerges, perhaps appropriately, as a movie that’s superbly decked out but in the end doesn’t really go anywhere unexpected.  One can imagine what it might have been had Scott and his collaborators really toyed with the material; it might have been a sharply observed class study, a biting satire, a lurid melodrama, or a catty TV mini-series.  Instead, it’s a bit of all of the above, and by trying to be all things to all people, it winds up, despite the game efforts of a starry cast, an overlong, rather dull, only occasionally spiky tale of bad conduct among the fashionistas.