Two households, alike in dignity, where ambition and greed and treachery do reign. That’s the Shakespearean drift behind a pair of recent films charting two ruthless families, as “vaulting ambition o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other side.”
In other words: they got greedy.
Both Ridley Scott’s true-life House of Gucci and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth explore overreaching characters, and both offer a giddy mix of sorcery, treachery, and lurid ambitions. One is as cheesy as a Papa Gino’s Special; the other is carefully crafted for Oscar consideration.
First, on the farce side, Scott’s retelling of a real-life murder plot casts Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, a young Milanese woman working in her father’s small trucking firm, who becomes the ambitious new wife of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). The fashion fortunes of Gucci had fallen on hard times by the ‘80s when the two meet up at a party; Maurizio, a carefree eccentric who rides around Milan on a bicycle, angers his dad (Jeremy Irons) by vowing to marry Patrizia, not just dally with her, and he is cut off.
They seek the comforting succor of Maurizio’s uncle, Aldo Gucci (a relatively restrained Al Pacino), the designer who originally came up with the Gucci logo. Aldo’s own son Paolo (a truly over-the-top, stuffed-crust-pizza performance by Jared Leto) is too much of a flake to take over the company’s future, and Aldo grooms Maurizio to learn the business — with Patrizia’s persistent ambitions driving him along.
Scott directs in pulpy Hannibal mode here, rather than in the manner of, say, Blade Runner, Gladiator, or All the Money in the World, his underrated 2017 telling of the real-life J. Paul Getty kidnapping. That’s okay because when Scott revels in excess, he likes to get down into it and take a big, messy bath. Gaga is very watchable as the conniving, chain-smoking wife who wants more, more, more and consults a soothsayer (Salma Hayek) to give her regular career advice, including how to hire Sicilian hitmen.
The film is filled with wonderfully cheesy moments, as Gaga transforms herself from a “more fun” version of Elizabeth Taylor (at least that’s how she sells herself to the smitten Driver) into a nervy, evil-eyeing, designer-fitted Lady Macbeth. That this is all pretty much a true story (though too long by 30 minutes) makes it even more engaging in all its trashy glory. Leto, sporting a bald wig, aging makeup, and an accent that comes off like a Russian-speaking Jeffrey Tambor, almost threatens to derail the movie with his scenery-chewing (“Boof!”), to the point where Pacino has no choice but to dial it down in scenes with him. But it’s all part of the pulpy, sleazy fun.
If it’s twisty tales of ambition, deception, and unspooling plans that you seek, you definitely get all you need from these two films.
In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen takes a rare solo flight from the Coen brothers to direct Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in a stylized retelling of Shakespeare’s tale set in Scotland.
Coen shoots in moody black-and-white, suggestive of Orson Welles’ dark tragedies, twisted noirs, and German Expressionistic outings like The Trial. Shafting angles, deep shadows, and lengthy hallways where daggers hang help frame and reveal the deeds of Macbeth and his lady. It’s a stage-like production, with in-camera tricks (ghostly shadows on water forming the witchy sisters) and dreamlike illusions (that hovering dagger).
As ever, the language enfolds us in the conspiracy, where Macbeth, yielding to prophecies and his lady’s prodding, does the deed, then goes blood simple (recalling an early Coen Brothers film), losing his logic and calling upon Lady Macbeth to clean up his mess.
While it’s the British thespians that lend this production a classical polish, it’s the Americans — chiefly Washington and McDormand — who give it a slight Coen spin. Though older than past Macbeths, the Americans muster up their own mojo. Sometimes it’s through understatement, as when Lennox goes on theatrically about “lamentings heard in the air, strange screams of death and prophesying, some say the earth was feverous and did shake,” and Washington simply shrugs and tosses off the line, “T‘was a rough night.” Elsewhere, Washington works his beard stubble and physicality, at one point channeling his character in Training Day (“King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” here becomes a bellowing “upon my head they placed a fruitless crown and put a barren scepter in my grip!”).
Meanwhile, McDormand relies on stern looks, arched eyebrows, and a finger pressed to her silent lips to convey the unfolding nightmare. (Interestingly, their two faces are rarely shown together in the same frame, as though to emphasize their psychological tension and separation.) It all unfolds like a well-made tourbillon and makes you realize the Coen siblings, much like the Bard, are avid students of human psychology. The Tragedy of Macbeth provides ample space to inject irony, treachery, violence, sexual power, and human folly — all the moods so beloved by the Coens.
The production is dazzling — whether it’s Macbeth’s Scottish castle laid out like an elaborate, endless maze, or its exterior bridges shrouded in billowing fog, or the roving Great Birnam Wood, or the ravaged battlefields where the witches (all played by scene-stealing Kathryn Hunter) are presented almost as war refugees, left in the dust and waste of another human atrocity. (No wonder they’re pissed.)
How much is enough? How much is too much? In the end, it’s like that other Bard — Mick Jagger — sang: “You can’t always get what you want.” But if it’s twisty tales of ambition, deception, and unspooling plans that you seek, you definitely get all you need from these two films.