Screen Grabs: From Gaga to Beanie, it’s dysfunctional family holiday movie time

Lady Gaga in ‘House of Gucci’

‘House of Gucci,’ ‘C’mon C’mon,’ and ‘The Humans’ probe family life in very different ways.

By DENNIS HARVEY

NOVEMBER 22, 2021 (48hills.org)

For some of us, nothing quite sets the teeth on edge like the flood of saccharine holiday movies that begin arriving each year around now, with 2021 newbies including titles like A Castle For Christmas (that pair-up between Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes we’ve apparently all been waiting for) and shiny gay bauble Single All The Way. Most of them qualify as “family entertainment,” but the new arrivals we’re looking at that open this Thanksgiving week fall more into the realm of entertainment about families, and are definitely aimed at grownup viewers. While they range in quality from near-miss to exceptional, all probe family life in various shades of “dysfunctional,” and thus may be more relatable than the latest Hallmark Channel holiday princess fantasy.

The big gun in terms of commercial hopes and general hype is House of Gucci, Ridley Scott’s movie about that fabled Italian fashion famiglia’s internal strife—which eventually grew so intense it led to murder, as well as ouster from their own business empire. This throwback to the soap-operatic celluloid sagas of yesteryear (the kind often adapted from lurid page-turners by Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins) is billed as “inspired by” a nonfiction tome about those conflicts, meaning that it takes some pretty big liberties. Still, it hews close enough to the basic, amply documented facts.

The film offers a sort of companion piece to Scott’s 2017 All The Money in the World, which chronicle of John Paul Getty III’s abduction zeroed in one notorious criminal aspect of 1970s Italian life, its rash of kidnappings for ransom. House echoes that theme only in the discreet but constant presence of bodyguards protecting its wealthy protagonists. In 1978, shy, awkward law student Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) meets Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) at a party. She’s the stepdaughter of a successful trucking-company entrepreneur, so no pauper. Still, she’s dazzled by his famous name, and makes sure he’s dazzled by her attentions. When they marry, it causes a rift with his aristocratic father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who pegs her as a gold-digger. But that’s fine by Maurizio, who prefers a quiet life away from the glitz and pressure of the “family business.”

His new wife, however, has other ideas. Her Machiavellian maneuvers do get him back in Dad’s good graces, as well as the Gucci brand’s executive management. She also sneaks around building allegiances to uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and his own rather hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto), instigating a series of betrayals that turn into a full-on circular firing squad. At a certain point, Maurizio begins being repelled by her deceit and naked ambition. When he insists on a divorce, this scorned woman’s wrath (abetted by Salma Hayek as a fortune teller turned BFF and co-conspirator) proves lethal.

With so much dirt to spill, House of Gucci can hardly help but be entertaining. But it isn’t exactly a good movie, or even great trash—it takes itself too seriously to be much fun, while nonetheless being too melodramatic to achieve anything more than juicy “true crime” pulp. Again using cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Scott lends the movie the same sleek yet coldly impersonal look Money had, which saps the garish joy one might expect from this gawk at rich-and-famous lifestyles. And his cast, despite all their collective Oscar wins and nominations, is uneven, to say the least.

The more restrained turns (particularly Driver and Irons) are fine. But others chew scenery in ways that are shameless without being particularly enjoyable. Leto cuts the prosciutto very thick in yet another vaguely irksome show of chameleon showiness. Pacino gives one of his better performances in recent years… until that all-too-familiar yelling starts. As for Lady Gaga, the fact that a pop superstar turns out a competent actress doesn’t mean she’s actually a good one, let alone has the star quality or depth of technique to carry a major role. She, like House of Gucci, is just OK in a context that practically demands the spectacular.

Likely to make a smaller initial splash, but also a better run at year-end awards and Top 10 lists, is Berkeley-born Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon. This is a very different kind of family drama, low-key and naturalistic, not particularly plot-driven, though it does have a certain physical sprawl as its characters hop from one corner of the US to another (L.A., NYC, Oakland, New Orleans). Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, an NPR-type journalist who’s been somewhat out of touch with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) since he offered unwelcome advice on her now-defunct marriage to the very high-strung Paul (Scoot McNairy). But when the latter departs Los Angeles for a new job in the Bay Area, his coping skills are poor enough that Viv must help with the move. That in turn prompts her to beg Johnny’s help with Jesse (Woody Norman), the 9-year-old son she’ll need to leave behind for a few days.

Jesse is a handful—alternately a quirky delight and exhaustingly mercurial, no doubt acting out the insecurities caused by his parents’ absences, plus perhaps a hereditary element of his father’s less-than-stable temperament. Though currently embroiled in a long-term radio project interviewing kids re: their views on the future, actual childcare is a new thing for Johnny, and Jesse is not an easy child. Nonetheless, they end up getting along famously. Which is a good thing, because fragile Paul soon undergoes a mental crisis that leaves the kid in his uncle’s charge for much longer than initially expected.

Those interview segments provide a running thread that elevates C’mon from a finely observed parenting drama in the Kramer vs. Kramer mode to a movie that has a lot to say about the slowly rising current of anxiety running through our era. Will there even be a future for today’s kids? What will it look like? How can we prepare them for it? Easily Mills’ best movie to date (and his best since 2005 debut feature Thumbsucker), C’mon C’mon has a distinctive B&W look, terrific performances, a soundtrack full of musical surprises, an offbeat structure (littered with both flashbacks and flash-forwards), and the freshness of improvisation without the usual sporadic longeurs of slackened inspiration. It’s profound in a seemingly offhand way, sans pretentiousness, and easily one of the year’s best US narrative films.

By all accounts one of the best stage plays in recent years is The Humans, a Pulitzer finalist and Tony winner in 2016 that author Stephen Karam has now adapted as his first directorial feature. It’s a Thanksgiving release that actually takes place on Thanksgiving, as the Blake family gathers for the traditional big meal in a Manhattan Chinatown apartment that musician daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) have just moved into.

Descending on the place with plenty of Tupperware-bourne foodstuffs are her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), senile grandma Momo (June Squibb), and Brigid’s sibling Aimee (Amy Schumer). The latter is distraught because her own longterm relationship has just ended. But as the long day pulls toward evening, everyone else’s wounds are exposed, running a gamut from easily-bruised egos to infidelity, financial straits, alcoholism, “emotional eating,” and more.

When Richard mentions an episode of depression in his recent past, the response is, “In our family we don’t have that kind of depression. We just have a kind of stoic sadness.” Yet the Blakes know how to get under each other’s skin, and can hardly stop themselves, invariably apologizing just after they’ve said exactly the wrong thing yet again.

This is your classic “secrets and lies explode at the dinner table” kind of play, one that Karam works hard to render cinematic by making the creaky, cranky, variously malfunctioning apartment itself into a kind of character. It’s almost a haunted house, complete with jump scares and hinted-at malevolence always just out of view. While this layer of Gothicism seems somewhat gratuitous thematically, it does work atmospherically, lending The Humans a distinctive, interesting audiovisual texture.

This working-class family drama is otherwise effective, if not necessarily as devastating as some of its general type. The performances are all first-rate, with Houdyshell a sole holdover from prior stage incarnations. Feldstein is particularly vivid as a type that reliably makes holiday family get-togethers a torment: The perpetually needy, “unappreciated” (according to themselves) family member who’s oversensitive about any real or perceived personal slight, yet completely insensitive when it comes to dishing out the hurtful barbs.

House of Gucci and C’mon C’mon open Wed/24 at movie theaters nationwide. The Humans opens Wed/24 in limited theaters including the Roxie in SF, as well as launching on Showtime’s streaming platform.

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