In recent weeks, two new Ridley Scott films have arrived in theaters. At first glance, House of Gucci and The Last Duel are very different movies: one a true-crime drama about a glamorous family, the other a Rashomon-style retelling of an assault in medieval France. But, fundamentally, both of Scott’s new films are about the corruptions of wealth—and the lengths men will go to defend their own power.
Even as far back as 1979’s Alien, Scott’s films have depicted the horrors wielded by those with money and influence. And, decades later, Scott is now one of the “last purveyors of box-office-friendly movies that are entirely geared toward adults,” our critic David Sims says. With these two recent entries to his filmography receiving wildly different critical and commercial responses, though, what exactly does the future of adult dramas look like in cinemas?
On an episode of the culture podcast The Review, Sims, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber try to decipher House of Gucci. What exactly is the new Ridley Scott film? (Comedy? Tragedy? True-crime family epic?) How do performances like Lady Gaga’s Oscar-bait lead and Jared Leto’s mozzarella-stuffed comic relief coexist on screen? Is it a work of camp at heart?
Listen to their conversation here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers
Spencer Kornhaber: Today we’re talking about House of Gucci, the much-discussed new movie directed by Ridley Scott starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver. It’s sort of Oscar bait, but also a total mystery about what kind of movie it’s trying to be. It’s generated a lot of online discussion. So today we’re going to get into it and whether it’s good, bad, or so bad that it’s good.
David Sims: Or whether quality is not a spectrum.
Kornhaber: Or perhaps quality is not a spectrum! Perhaps luxury goods are not desirable anymore.
Shirley Li: Is it the knockoff Gucci handbag you’d find on a blanket near Times Square?
Kornhaber: Exactly. We are going to get to the bottom of this. To set it up, House of Gucci is the story about how Gucci the fashion brand was lost by Gucci the family, and how its onetime chairman Maurizio Gucci lost his life to a hitman hired by his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani. The central couple is played by Adam Driver and Lady Gaga, and it follows their marriage through the 1970s and 1980s. Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto play other key family members and associates.
Way back in March of this year, a photo from the movie hit the internet and got people talking. And, to me, the most exciting thing was the aesthetic: They were wearing 1980s yuppie clothing: super-luxe chunky sweaters, baubles, fur pillbox hats … It’s an aesthetic that I think is in our cultural memory hole. Not a lot of people are trying to look like 1980s yuppies right now, and so it seemed like the movie would be this fun time-warp costume party. It got me somewhat hyped, but did we get that from the movie?
Sims: I think the answer is yes and no. There’s this sort of war going on in this movie. Often within one scene, there will be a war between two actors playing wildly varying tones. It depends on how much you want to vibe with that. And then there’s Ridley Scott’s perspective, which I think is maybe not Everyone have a party! It’s a free-for-all of wealth and pleasure! He is not approaching this wanting audience members to be bouncing beach balls and blowing kazoos. What did you think, Shirley?
Li: My answer is also yes and no. You have Lady Gaga and Jared Leto following a completely different assignment from, say, Jeremy Irons. And I think, for some people, that results in a film that feels imbalanced. But for me, that takes it into territory that kept me riveted for the whole two and a half hours.
Kornhaber: Riveted? I came out feeling absolutely un-riveted and really distressed by it. I thought it was sort of a cold slog down the mountain slope instead of the zippy ski run that I wanted and expected.
Li: What you call cold, I call bizarre. It’s this mixed bag of completely wild accent work, plus muted performances, plus Ridley Scott’s blue tone applied to make something that’s supposed to be glamorous and luxurious feel grainy and odd. David, you described it in your review as a poisonous fairy tale. I couldn’t look away because it was so bizarre.
Sims: It reminded me of American Gangster, another movie Ridley Scott made that was tipped as an Oscar favorite. It was this big biopic starring Denzel Washington, and that movie is maybe more classy than it needed to be. In a way, it may have benefited from being directed by someone who wants to give you a more fun package of a gritty crime thriller. And there’s a world where House of Gucci is a miniseries—and that is a world I decry. I want fewer miniseries in the world. I want more adult dramas in cinemas. But this movie obviously tries to pack in a lot of detail.
And I should say: Ridley Scott is a director I adore. I’m a major defender of his. He’s not universally beloved in film-critic circles with his recent work. Obviously his early work in Alien and Blade Runner, that’s something else. But he’s had a definitive point of view in his recent curmudgeonly elder phase: Rich people are the worst. Wealth is poison. The allure is powerful and tempting, but these people are all trapped in a cage that’s closing in on them. And so he shoots this movie as he shoots a lot of his movies, with these dark slate grays and blues. It’s sort of tomblike. The Jeremy Irons character basically lives in this fancy cave. And so I imagine people expecting poppy 1980s pastels were surprised it wasn’t more vibrant when, really, Scott is saying: These people are monsters.
Li: Sure, he’s fascinated by the poison of wealth, but he is also just fascinated by wealth and luxury itself. He once made a rom-com called A Good Year, which was filmed at his property in Provence.
Sims: Well, that movie is about Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe wanting to have a nice vacation.
Kornhaber: I mean, who among us?
Sims: All the Money in the World was the last movie he made [before these recent two]. It’s also based on true events—that one about the Getty family—and so this interest in wealth is shot through his work. In the Alien movies, corporate avarice is a villain grander than stomach-exploding aliens. So Shirley’s right: He’s always been fascinated by these topics, but he does always swing back around to, like: Look, at the end of the day, you’ll be dead.
Kornhaber: A lot of things you are saying could apply to an Adam McKay or a Spike Lee. There are many directors who have a point of view that also make kinetic and stylish movies. So are you telling me that this movie is executed in the way that Ridley Scott wanted?
Sims: Ridley Scott is definitely making the movies he wants to make. Like many older directors, he’s notorious for moving quickly when making a film. That might be one explanation. No one is talking to the actors and being like: “Hey, Jared, you’re at 800 and, Adam, you’re at a four. We need to balance this out a little bit.” But I think that’s also why Ridley Scott movies tend to be completely chock-full of really talented actors who know what they’re doing.
Li: Scott is also a filmmaker who’s interesting because you don’t quite know the effect his films will have. He makes films that are prestigious but can also work as hits with the consumer box office.
Sims: Yes, he is one of the last purveyors of box-office-friendly movies that are entirely R-rated and geared toward adults.
Li: And that’s what makes me invested in the work he does. But as the audience has changed, you see him adjusting with the cultural landscape—especially in this press tour where he’s kind of trying to figure out why people didn’t see The Last Duel.
Kornhaber: You guys are helping me understand the approach that led to House of Gucci being what it was. But if I was to say the main enjoyment I got out of it was laughing at it, and not with it, is that how you felt?
Sims: I think Ridley Scott would say you were actually laughing with it. He’s been insisting that it’s a comedy.
Kornhaber: There is a grand tradition of laughing at something and not with it: “Is it camp?” is a question the internet loves to bat around and give people headaches about. But in the case of House of Gucci, I think the answer may be yes.
Li: Camp is performance and this is a very much a performance-driven film.
Sims: Susan Sontag described camp as having “artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and shocking excess.” I would say this has all four. But there’s been somewhat of an existential crisis over whether it’s campy, and whether it’s allowed to be campy because there has to be intent, right? If something is trying to be serious and Oscar-y like, then does it count? Do we get to decide if it’s camp or does the movie get to? So there’s been a sort of push and pull on that. But if it helps answer the question, Al Pacino takes 40 minutes to sign a piece of paper in this movie while going “Aaaah!”
Sims: So I think it’s a little campy. This seems like a movie you could play at a theater with free drinks and encourage everyone to have fun.
Kornhaber: And let’s be clear: I’m looking forward to those screenings. This will live on in midnight screenings and YouTube compilations. The confusion I think a lot of viewers have is just what you’re saying: It’s about intention. So, we should get into the performances here. Obviously, the marquee name here is Lady Gaga, something of a camp queen herself. What do you all make of her performance?
Li: I mean, she’s a movie star at this point. I celebrate how much she did for this role, because Patrizia is ludicrous.
Sims: I agree. Lady Gaga is a movie star and anytime she’s in a movie, it’s worked. But with all due respect, there’s an element with her—both as a musician and as an actor—that she’s trying 10 percent harder than she needs to. And that slightly try-hard element is perfect for this character who is very ridiculous, but also has that edge that she thinks people don’t quite buy her as classy enough for the joint. She’s got that chip on their shoulder, which is why I think Gaga’s so well cast. She’s weirdly believable as this nobody in those early scenes, even though she’s going to be very glamorous later in the movie.
We have to talk about the accent though. It’s so … Transylvanian, right? Like, she sounds like Dracula. And, watching the movie, I was having fun and didn’t mind it being ludicrous, even within this movie, and then I went and I looked at clips of Patrizia Reggiani, and I was like: Oh she just sounded like that? She’s actually just doing this person’s very affected voice. It’s an excellent performance. I’m on the New York Film Critics Circle and we gave her Best Actress, to everybody’s sort of alarm.
Sims: And I loved it. I’m happy for her. I think she’s a movie star. There’s just not a lot of people like that who can really dominate the screen right now.
Kornhaber: We need to put on the table, though: Jared Leto. What did he do? Why did he do it? And was it okay?
Sims: He’s an actor that I generally don’t like. We all liked him back in the day on My So-Called Life. And for a while after that, he would pop up in Fight Club or Panic Room, but then he dropped off the map for a while. And when he returned for Dallas Buyers Club, I thought he gave this grating, obnoxiously over-the-top performance. And then he won an Oscar and became this transformed movie star. And I’ve not been able to vibe with him much since then. I don’t know how you guys feel about Jared Leto. I like him in House of Gucci. I’ll just preface my further thoughts with that.
Li: His method-y shtick is just kind of tired and overbearing.
Kornhaber: I avoided his Joker movie and haven’t really gazed into the dark heart of what the deal is with Jared Leto, and why the dudes who spend all day on Reddit think he’s the best actor alive. There’s something a little macho and performative about his version of method and the kind of roles he selects. And in House of Gucci, he was just an assault on my senses that made me want to crawl under my seat.
Sims: I do think he’s playing both Wario and Waluigi at the same time.
Kornhaber: And, to quote your movie review, it seems like he “walked off of a pizza box.”
Sims: I just imagine Jared Leto seeing the little man with a mustache on the pizza box and being like: “That will be my inspiration!” He’s wearing this crazy makeup and has the girth of a Wario. (And Wario is Mario’s evil cousin from the video games, if anyone doesn’t know.) And I believe Leto’s character Paolo [Maurizio Gucci’s blowhard cousin] is not maybe quite as bad as the movie says he is, but he’s basically a very full-of-himself designer who’s really bad. Everyone rolls their eyes at him, but he’s a Gucci, so he sort of skates along. But then he has the patheticness of a Waluigi. He has this inner sadness.
Li: He’s whimpering in every scene.
Sims: He is. And even though he has all this bravado, he knows that no one respects him. And I think he also weirdly nails that. My favorite scene in the movie is when Paolo lays out all his designs for Rodolfo Gucci, played by Jeremy Irons. And Rodolfo gives Paolo a minute and lets him posture, and then just absolutely hatchets him in the face. “You are an embarrassment. Get this out of my house.” Irons is so good at that dry, withering awfulness. But I did feel for this buffoon, I’m sorry, Spencer.
Kornhaber: He has some good lines. He says he’s “an artist who needs to fly, like a pigeon.”
Sims: It feels like it’s a sort of meta-insult to Jared Leto, doesn’t it?
Kornhaber: Except for the fact that it’s Jared Leto doing that!
Li: It does make me wonder if, behind the camera, Ridley Scott is just sitting there downing the vodka martinis that he always talks about having in the afternoon, just being like, “Yes, go on!”
Kornhaber: He released another movie six weeks before this one.
Sims: Yes, The Last Duel was supposed to come out last year, but was delayed by the pandemic. It wrapped a while ago, and Disney kind of dumped it into theaters. I think it’s a far more successful movie than House of Gucci, which I enjoyed, but I think The Last Duel was actually good.
Li: The Last Duel is excellent.
Kornhaber: It is a pretty good movie at being what it is, but it does feel like it has a lot in common with House of Gucci in a weird way where it’s kind of like a collection of scenes, and it’s interested in different points of view on this tragic story. It’s about these two knights who fought the last legal duel in medieval France. It tells that story from three different points of view and unfolds slowly, with a lot of attention to period details. You really feel like you’re in a disgusting, cold castle the entire time you’re watching it. But Ridley Scott was on this press tour, saying that it’s Millennials’ fault that this movie wasn’t a hit, and my reaction is: In no universe would this movie be a hit. It’s an intense, long, sad thing about sexual assault in history.
Sims: But there was a time in Ridley Scott’s career when this kind of movie would be a hit. It’s a prestige film for adults with major movie stars (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver). There’s absolutely a time when it would have been a big hit. Obviously, the fact that the film includes sexual assault affects it. But Scott made Thelma and Louise, which has an incredibly searing rape scene at its center, and it was a colossal hit.
Kornhaber: Yeah, but it’s entertaining.
Sims: Well, I think The Last Duel is tremendously entertaining. In its first section, Matt Damon plays this guy who considers himself a noble warrior and a good husband defending his wife. And then we switch to the second perspective we have Adam Driver, which is basically about what an absolute blowhard Matt Damon is. And then we switch to the truth with Jodie Comer’s perspective, which is about how both of these men are insufferable and how the entire system that holds them up in power is so fake and stupid. It’s very witty and dry in this weird way for a movie that is also a fairly realistic depiction of medieval life, and a devastatingly realistic depiction of assault.
Kornhaber: It is a finer movie than House of Gucci and deserves an audience. And when Ridley Scott complains that it’s not a smash hit—maybe I’m a product of my generation and not used to these adult-themed movies being the kind of hit that you want them to be—but I think it’s a good art-house indie movie, but expecting it to be a cultural phenomenon seems a little deluded to me.
Li: I don’t think he was expecting it to be a cultural phenomenon, but it really did worse at the box office than expected. But it’s made an admirable amount of money after it started streaming, and that’s just a strange atmosphere to be in for a filmmaker who’s been around as long as he has.
Sims: Let me read you Ridley Scott’s quote, because it is actually funny:
“I think what it boils down to—what we’ve got today [are] the audiences who were brought up on these fucking cellphones. The millennian [sic] do not ever want to be taught anything unless you’re told it on a cellphone … This is a broad stroke, but I think we’re dealing with it right now with Facebook. This is a misdirection that has happened where it’s given the wrong kind of confidence to this latest generation.”
My response: Yes, roast me, daddy. Absolutely.
Kornhaber: Drag on, grandpa.
Sims: No, I’m with him!
Kornhaber: And I’m the cloud that he’s yelling at!
Li: I don’t see it as him scolding. I think he is right.
Sims: Yeah, we all can’t put our damn cellphones down.
Li: I appreciate that he’s emotional about it.
Kornhaber: Yeah, he cares so much. And yet he didn’t care enough to make House of Gucci better, I’m sorry. But to sum it up, what do you think these two movies in conversation with each other say about the state of movies right now?
Sims: I think it’s a weird time for movies right now. People are returning to cinemas, and movies are making money again, but it’s largely been movies geared toward younger people, like franchise movies. They’re still waiting to lure older people in. Like No Time to Die probably didn’t do as well as it could have in America because part of the James Bond audiences is older viewers, unlike Shang-Chi or other Marvel movies.
Ridley Scott is making movies for a wider age band, which I think is going to have a slow process getting back to normal. But I’m more confident than some that it will snap back and it’s not just broken forever, where people will only watch dramas on their televisions. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the movie business will just be art houses and giant-size event movies, and everything else will be more of a home experience.
Li: I’m just happy that there are two-and-a-half-hour movies that treat me like an adult. They may be hard to sell because they’re about serious subjects. But they ask for my patience and my attention, and I don’t mind giving it.
Sims: You’re no millennian.
Li: Yeah, I’m not offended by what Scott said, because I do think it’s true. I’m more offended when studios come out and say: “We can only put horror movies in theaters because that’s the only thing that appeals to young people.” Or: “Movies really should be under 90 minutes because that’s all we have the attention span for.” We should be challenging that attention span. We should challenge the idea that we don’t have the time for it. Make longer movies about subjects that are hard to sell.