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In quite possibly the funniest jump cut of this year, perhaps even the funniest sequence of all 2021 cinema, we watch in House of Gucci as curvy, coquettish Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) lures her gangly nerd of a boyfriend, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), into the trailer office of her father’s trucking business. With his floppy mop, goofy grin and thick aviator spectacles, Maurizio comes off as an innocent lamb, not the scion of a billion-dollar Milanese fashion empire. The couple starts making out and quickly moves to a desk as Dionysian clips from La Traviata blare in the background. Their sex is raucous — Gaga’s guttural grunts and shrieks soon compete with the operatic din. Cut to: Patrizia at the entrance of a cathedral clad in a busty white wedding dress looking like a human cupcake. Her victory has been cemented.
This moment illustrates the deranged beauty of Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, an ostentatious throwback crime drama so high-spirited that critics love it or loathe it, with few opinions in between. Lady Gaga is radiant playing a middle-class social climber working to secure her husband’s place in his family’s conglomerate, her trilling “Italian” accent so luscious and decadent that authenticity becomes immaterial. (It’s so thick, you could spread it on toast.) Just as bizarrely compelling is Jared Leto playing Maurizio’s glitzy black-sheep cousin Paolo with all the Italianate verve of a Nintendo character.
Gucci has become a moderate box office hit, scoring the top opening of an adult-oriented drama during the pandemic era. Given the popularity of the latest Marvel and James Bond movies, audiences, it seems, have been ready for cinematic bigness again.
The most memorable films of 2020 and early 2021 were all about quiet subtlety onscreen. Just looking at the indie-skewing, Oscar-nabbing performances of this past year — stoic Frances McDormand in Nomadland, mystified Anthony Hopkins in The Father, witty Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari and steely Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah — you sense that Academy voters almost wanted to honor the hushed mood of the worldwide crisis as much as they wanted to honor the actors themselves. Pragmatically, it’s also just a fact that smaller films reigned in the public consciousness last year because studios held back large releases like Dune and West Side Story. Despite the ever-raging variants that continue to prolong the pandemic, the rise of COVID-19 vaccines and isolation fatigue have led to a slowly emerging Roaring ’20s, where many people feel free to resume the lives they lived in 2019 and before. The major films of 2021 encapsulate this snapback against the downbeat sensibilities of the past year and a half, emphasizing joy and melodrama in lieu of naturalism and brutality. We need the laughter and the tears of these new movies as much as we need catharsis from the traumas of recent times.
Some of the most watchable performances of 2021 strive for crowd-pleasing poignancy. Will Smith, a frontrunner for the sports biopic King Richard, puts his whole heart into the role of Richard Williams, the ambitious father and tennis coach who molded daughters Venus and Serena into grand champions. Similarly, musical stars Andrew Garfield, Peter Dinklage and Anthony Ramos exude warmth and romanticism as men seeking companionship and stability in Tick, Tick … Boom!, Cyrano and In the Heights, respectively. And the resolute women of West Side Story — Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno — especially wow with their voices and dancing skills.
Yet, it’s the overtly comedic roles that stand out to me even more than the loving ones. In Red Rocket, Simon Rex plays a fast-talking porn star who returns home to Texas in disgrace and uses his goofy charms to manipulate his way into the hometown community that hates him. Rex’s manic desperation matches Leonardo DiCaprio’s own in the political satire Don’t Look Up, in which he plays against type as a dorky and dumpy scientist trying to convince the world of an impending Earth-destroying comet. Still, I’m convinced Gaga and Leto offer the best farcical performances of the year in their otherwise dramatic roles.
House of Gucci, though, is not the only 2021 film that peddles in sensationalism. In Pablo Larraín’s claustrophobic Gothic drama Spencer, Kristen Stewart embodies Princess Diana as she decides to end her disastrous royal marriage, focusing the intensity of her performance in her eyes, glances and facial reactivity. In Pedro Almodóvar’s soap operatic Parallel Mothers, Penélope Cruz also plays a parent navigating grief and the roller-coaster emotions of relationships gone awry. Perhaps the most grounded of these melodramatic motherly performances is Kirsten Dunst in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. As a widow entering into a new marriage and an intimidating family, her performance starts off as delicate as a paper flower, but as her character falls into alcoholism and social anxiety, Dunst’s emotions and reactions amplify accordingly. These actors and their directors prove that just because a performance is chewable doesn’t mean it isn’t nuanced.
I was ready for acting to wallop me again. It makes me feel as if I’m alive.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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