Reviews: Dune and House of Gucci make for a memorable November in the box office, and for different reasons

I’ve had a good time at the movie theater this fall, having thoroughly enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings in September and No Time to Die on its opening weekend on October 10. Two more flicks captured my attention and promised to do the same, science-fiction adaptation Dune and drama House of Gucci. As of this week, I’ve now seen both, and I’ll dive into my thoughts on each today.

Dune and House of Gucci share a notable similarities: Star Wars sequel actors (Oscar Isaac as patriarch Leto Atreides, Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci), singers turned movie stars (Zendaya, Lady Gaga) and accomplished directors (Denis Villenueve, Ridley Scott) and also explore the construct of powerful families. The similarities end there. 

Dune is a sci-fi coming-of-age epic that will likely stretch multiple movies, House of Gucci dramatizes the tragic real-life story of the Gucci empire and their clothing brand. 

My experiences of these two movies, and my opinions of them, are also polar opposites. I’ll dive back into Dune first.

Dune

I indulged myself in a dorm room viewing of Dune after class ended early one Monday afternoon, using my projector to take in the transcendent vistas, special effects and Hans Zimmer score. The film, based on a 1965 novel of the same name, follows the efforts of the Atreides family to keep power and bring peace to a planet with spice named Arrakis. 

I didn’t understand the entirety of the narrative, but the cinematic wonder compensated for any lack of clarity. Dune is like Star Wars except if they spent three hours on the same two planets and were in no rush to establish the next plot point or major event. Now I love Star Wars, but this sci-fi flick feels immersive with no element of artifice to take audiences out of the illusion (same can’t always be said for the CGI worlds in a galaxy far, far away). For Dune’s combat sequences, Villenueve uses a shield-type apparatus with different colors to indicate lethalness of a hit, a construct that quickly shifts from gimmick to one of the movie’s most engaging elements. 

I haven’t wrapped my head around the politics of Dune, and I’ll definitely have to take a second go-around to dive into the intricacies of the world. But that is Dune’s greatest endorsement, and the crux of my review — I really, really want to watch it again. In spite of its lengthy runtime and subdued, noir feel, I’m eager to take this in again and have my hopes set high for a sequel to complete the story.

House of Gucci

On the other hand, I do not want to see House of Gucci again. 

It’s been a while since I’ve written a harsh review of a movie, and that’s in large part because I love espousing the virtues of movies that I really enjoy. House of Gucci warrants my wrath. After watching the trailer and seeing pictures of Adam Driver in a sweater on a snowy ridge, I built it up in my mind as the next Uncut Gems

To be fair, I didn’t have an awful time in the cinemas. If you go to see the spectacle of it all or to bask in a late-career Al Pacino performance — as I did — there’ll be enough to not make you rethink your ticket purchase. But House of Gucci did not satisfy or live up to its 85% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga lead a star-studded cast as a couple set up to be the future of luxury clothing brand Gucci. The film initially follows their journey as a couple, a charming dynamic between the vivacious Patrizia and the quiet, kind Maurizio. Driver’s Maurizio very much wants to steer clear of the Gucci name, but as the old Michael Corleone quote goes, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Spurred on by Patrizia, the two take a more involved role in the empire and pull back the curtain on an all-out power grab.

Director Ridley Scott pulls out everything in his arsenal to make the story of the Guccis seem timeless and epic. The backdrops showcase stunning displays of wealth and Italian countrysides, and recognizable classical music serves as the film’s score. 

Still, it all has to amount to something. Scarface and The Great Gatsby are big screen examples of tragedies that comment on the trappings of wealth and greed, and each leaves the audiences with burning questions. Was this Jay Gatsby’s destiny? Could Tony Montana stop himself before he hit the top? Were their downfalls inevitable?

House of Gucci offers no such scathing critiques or compelling questions. It just tells the audience, “well, that’s the Gucci family.” There’s no clarity on who brought about the demise of the Guccis, no moral to the story emblazoned in audiences’ minds. It’s as if the filmmakers’ key objective was to impress upon viewers that the Gucci family went to extreme lengths to push each other down. That objective is met, but that itself can’t be the basis of a compelling movie. And the result is a movie that culminates in unsatisfying and anticlimactic fashion. 

It’s not a problem of the source material. There are plenty of movies based loosely off real-life that seem more incredible than a Hollywood script. House of Gucci does the opposite, instead feeling beholden to the real-life timeline and bound to making Maurizio’s climactic encounter the film’s endgame. 

A more glaring issue I have with House of Gucci is the acting. Al Pacino’s performance as the family patriarch shines, and Adam Driver is lovable early on as a charmingly reserved, self-made man. But after Maurizio comes back to the Gucci brand, the movie devolves into a cacophony of loud personalities. Jared Leto’s Paolo is particularly brash and takes up a lot of screen time, and Gaga’s Patrizia never really establishes herself as a likeable character early on. Character arcs are unclear and instead take the form of full 180 spins. Again, this is the director’s intent in telling a tragedy, but without those driving questions and clarity, House of Gucci feels unbearable at times and in search of relief, which its end credits eventually provide.

I’ll add another comparison in here in the movie I immediately likened to the House of Gucci trailer — Uncut Gems. The Adam Sandler drama is brash, loud, glamorous, excessive. But Uncut Gems markets itself as the exact experience that it is — the degenerate sports gambling, the early-career Weeknd concerts, the Kevin Garnett appearances — and surrounds it with fantastic quotes, eminently memorable scenes and an unexpected but fitting ending. It’s not for everybody and I didn’t take two trips to see it in theaters, but Uncut Gems delivers, while House of Gucci leaves the audience grasping at substance in its storytelling that doesn’t exist.

I’ll take the net positive of the four movies I’ve watched in theaters or through streaming this fall because a great movie always makes more of an impression on me than a mediocre one does to detract. Shang-Chi is a legendary movie, No Time to Die was perfect as a birthday exclamation point and Dune was pretty sweet. The lesson that I will take away from the quartet is the importance of narrative clarity in separating movies that exceed expectations from those that fall fantastically short. 

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