Like many people, I saw House of Gucci over Thanksgiving weekend: It had the best box office opening of any “adult drama” in the pandemic age of moviegoing. Like somewhat fewer people, I found almost nothing to like about it — baggy pacing and plotting, a focus on arguably the least interesting aspects of the elite fashion dynasty, a predictable 1980s soundtrack, wack dialogue, minimal chemistry between any two actors and only slight glances at promised criminal intrigue.
But worst of all, as almost every reviewer has pointed out, are the “Italian” accents put on by the American and British stars of the film, each one a strong argument to remake some version of this story with actual Italians. Even a dialogue coach on the film criticized the performances.
As I left the theater with my nearly full-blooded Italian-American girlfriend Maddie, she expressed her own severe disappointment, even going so far as to say that House of Gucci was “offensive” to her people, and not just because of the dopey voices everyone used. There was, she explained, no flair, no fire, no food. It was a hollow spectacle that came nowhere close to capturing the emotional intensity or historic weight of Italian culture. It was interminably bland.
That read got me thinking of a recurring motif in meme humor — the principle that among ethnic and national demographics, only Italians can be imitated or stereotyped without accusations of prejudice or racism. The most circulated example of this sentiment is an image macro that declares: “You can alway do an Italian accent / it’s never racist.” By the same token, there is wide permissiveness where it comes to content depicting Italians as pasta-obsessed, mobbed-up, overdramatic, gesticulating, womanizing rascals with very strong opinions.
There’s even a built-in reaction image, courtesy of The Sopranos, for when you want to facetiously claim anti-Italian discrimination — which, again, is held to be an impossible form of bigotry. (Fans of the show will pick up on an amusing irony, as the character, Silvio Dante, is complaining about Native American protesters who denounce Christopher Columbus as a genocidal colonizer.) Custom dictates that this meme be used according to such counterintuitive logic: It’s actually anti-Italian not to paint Italians in the broadest of strokes. When it came out that actor Chris Pratt would voice Mario in an upcoming animated movie based on the Nintendo franchise, but forgo the cartoonish Italian accent he has in video games, social media was engulfed in this kind of half-serious outrage, demanding that Mario remain an ethnic caricature.
It’s on the same basis that House of Gucci fails, although in far more spectacular fashion, such that we can only concede it’s genuinely offensive to Italians. Casting anglophone actors to portray the Gucci clan wouldn’t have been so disastrous if the screenplay had magnified the clichés of Italianness and allowed them to commit to the most absurdly heightened vision of Italy itself. Instead of reveling in the campy potential of that setting and era, as the movie’s proponents disingenuously argue it does, this labored epic goes out of its way to avoid regional flavor, while most of its ensemble end up coming across as neutrally and generically “European.” These are the safer choices, and therefore the wrong ones, as no true Italian would ever be accused of holding back. If the one detail that feels half-authentic is Jared Leto occasionally exclaiming “Boof,” you have folded your hand and cheated the audience.
The reason that Italian jokes get a pass is because we so often encounter ideal evidence of their accuracy. The biker firing retaliatory bottle rockets at the motorcyclist who cut him off. The hospital employee collecting more than half a million Euros in salary while playing hooky from work for 15 years. The Philadelphia gangster known by the nickname “Tony Meatballs.” And, of course, the legions of Italians typing furious comments every day about pineapple on pizza or putting cream in your carbonara. Italian pride has everything to do with being bold, brash and resolute in this maximalist attitude. Anything less than excessive is an insult to the ancestors.
What a shame, then, that director Ridley Scott does little more than show us Lady Gaga and Adam Driver looking snazzy in some fine costumes; you can rest assured that a Paolo Sorrentino or Martin Scorsese would have achieved the operatic caliber of entertainment that an Italian blood feud demands. Who might have guessed that the sin of anti-Italianism was to become reality in an Oscar-bait picture that denied us the smallest scrap of salami? They didn’t just ignore what makes Italy wonderful — they forgot how to make it Hollywood.