Ridley Scott’s fantastically rackety, messy soap opera about the fall of the house of Gucci is rescued from pure silliness by Lady Gaga’s glorious performance as Patrizia Reggiani, the enraged ex-wife of Maurizio Gucci, grandson of the fashion-house founder Guccio Gucci. She singlehandedly delivers the movie from any issues about Italianface casting: only she can get away with speaking English with the comedy foreign-a accent-a. Every time Gaga comes on screen, you just can’t help grinning at her sly elegance, mischief and performance-IQ, channelling Gina Lollobrigida or Claudia Cardinale in their early-50s gamine styles. There is a truly magnificent scene in which Patrizia is wearing nothing but weapons-grade lingerie in the marital bathroom – and yet somehow Maurizio, played by Adam Driver, is even more sexy in his demure monogrammed pyjamas.
Until seeing this film I had no idea that in 1995, Reggiani, through a bizarre confidante and professional psychic called Pina Auriemma, played here by Salma Hayek, paid a hitman to kill Maurizio, so incensed was Reggiani by his infidelity and the resulting divorce. It is like hearing that Karen Millen thought about whacking her husband or finding out that the retailer Michael Marks planned to garrotte Thomas Spencer outside Marble Arch tube station. But there it is.
Gaga shows us a Patrizia who is an aspirational young woman, a black-belt minx who is also profoundly innocent, with a secretarial day job working for her dad, a socially humble but well-off haulier. In 1970, she shows up at a Milan disco and meets-cute with gawky, lanky Maurizio Gucci, a law student with no great interest in the family business. He is played with gallant diffidence by Driver wearing a pair of big glasses – a mandarin-geek look I associate with Yves Saint Laurent.
They fall in love, to the furious disdain of Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo, played by Jeremy Irons with one of those moustaches that you create by shaving downwards from the nose to create a kind of charcoal line along the upper lip. He is a pampered former movie-matinee idol who gave up showbiz to rejoin the family firm and now suspects Patrizia of being a gold-digger. But Patrizia and Maurizio get married, an event with which Ridley Scott and editor Claire Simpson create a showstopping transition: Driver and Gaga have full-on sex in her dad’s office which at the moment of Patrizia’s orgasm cuts to her beatific appearance in church in her bridal gown. A sexualised epiphany of loveliness.
So Patrizia is to meet (and charm) the rest of the family, including Maurizio’s deadbeat loser cousin and wannabe designer Paolo: a bald, overweight guy played by … Jeffrey Tambor? No. It’s Jared Leto in some serious latex. And then there’s Maurizio’s genial uncle Aldo, played with a certain type of distrait charm by Al Pacino. This casting triggers a certain question: sure, dopey Paolo is Fredo, but who is Michael Corleone in this scenario? Maurizio or Patrizia? Yet just as Patrizia is coyly masterminding her man’s future dominance in the company, he is ungratefully fixing to sideline her after being re-enamoured of a certain upper-class acquaintance: Paola Franchi, played by Camille Cottin.
House of Gucci – adapted by screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna from the non-fiction bestseller by Sara Gay Forden – is enjoyable despite, or because of, Scott’s touristy, pantomimey approach to Italy and Italian culture. Yet with real storytelling zest the director punches up every scene, often with some very old-school musical cues: trad opera almost every time. (Paolo Sorrentino would have played it differently but maybe nowhere near as entertainingly.) There’s some very broad dialogue: trying to concentrate on his design ideas but horrified at the thought of his dad going to prison for tax evasion and fraud, Paolo screeches: “How can I think about my LINE when Dad could be DROPPING THE SOAP?” When I saw this, the entire audience flinched as one, everyone thinking: “Please tell me we aren’t going to get a scene with Al Pacino in the jailhouse shower.” Thankfully, no. But Scott must have thought about it.
In the end, this is Lady Gaga’s film: her watchability suffuses the picture, an arrabbiata sauce of wit, scorn and style.
• House of Gucci is released on 24 November in the US, 26 November in the UK, and 1 January in Australia.