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'The Humans,' 'House of Gucci' abound with family squabbling in time for the holidays


Thanksgiving is a time of family togetherness and sometimes family squabbling. Critic Bob Mondello says there's lots of the latter in two new films - "The Humans," a modestly produced play-turned-movie, and "House Of Gucci," an extravagant look at a fashion dynasty.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Near the outset of "House Of Gucci," there's a 1970s costume party where Patrizia, played by Lady Gaga, first spots Maurizio, played by Adam Driver. She's crashing the party. He's just standing there being a Gucci. Then she hears his last name, bats her eyes and unleashes on him the full force not of a clever party girl on the make, but of Lady Gaga. And he's toast. After a montage or two, she is a Gucci.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You picked a real firecracker.

ADAM DRIVER: (As Maurizio Gucci) She's a handful.

MONDELLO: The Gucci family never had a chance, at least as things are depicted in the overheated Italian dynasty episode Ridley Scott has made of their story.


LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) It's time to take out the trash.

DRIVER: (As Maurizio Gucci) Patrizia, they are my family.

MONDELLO: Maurizio's dad, Rodolfo Gucci, played by Jeremy Irons, objects to his son's marriage and promptly disappears from the film. Uncle Aldo Gucci, played by Al Pacino, tries to outmaneuver Gaga's Patrizia and ends up in jail. Adam Driver's Maurizio...


LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) Don't be such a cretin.

DRIVER: (As Maurizio Gucci) Don't call me a cretin, sweetie.

MONDELLO: ...Should only have been that lucky. And dim cousin Paolo Gucci - bald, paunchy, middle-aged and played by Jared Leto, who is none of those things until made unrecognizable by prosthetics - stumbles along for a while trying to outdo Gaga's accent.


JARED LETO: (As Paolo Gucci) Nobody has ever said that to me. Nobody.

MONDELLO: That's in response to her telling him he has a gift in a scene where I briefly found myself imagining I was watching Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder, directed by Mel Brooks.


LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) Paolo, why don't you have your own line?

LETO: (As Paolo Gucci) These are just mock-ups.

LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) You kidding? Gucci needs new blood. Goodbye 1930s, hello '80s. Huh?

LETO: (As Paolo Gucci) You took the words right out of my guts (ph).

MONDELLO: A flat-out farcical "House Of Gucci" might actually have been a hoot. This one, while it certainly has its moments, can't decide if it wants to be campy...


LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) Father, son and house of Gucci.

MONDELLO: ...Or a hit job melodrama and settles for being both at once and a half-hour too long - an overstuffed cannoli of a family saga.

I suppose you could say Stephen Karam's "The Humans" is about the house of Blake, though that's rather grander than the Blakes from Scranton are.


JAYNE HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) Your toilet seat is broken.

BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Brigid) I know. I'm going downstairs.

HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) I love you. I'm just saying.

MONDELLO: In a New York apartment that daughter Brigid and her boyfriend are just moving into, their few sticks of furniture surrounded by exposed pipes, blistered paint and windows that barely emit light, they've gathered for the Blake family Thanksgiving.


HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) This is a very special Chinatown edition of the Blake family Thanksgiving.

AMY SCHUMER: (As Aimee) Hear, hear.

RICHARD JENKINS: (As Erik Blake) Ah, this is what matters.

MONDELLO: Richard Jenkins as dad sets the tone.


JENKINS: (As Erik Blake) But end of the day, everything anyone's got, no matter who you are, one day it goes.

HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) Well, that's a positive way of looking at things.


SCHUMER: (As Aimee) You should do that at a funeral, dad.

MONDELLO: On Broadway, where Karam's play won a Tony Award and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, there was a nifty staging conceit. The set was a two-story cross-section of a Chinatown apartment that was practically a character in itself - loud noises from upstairs, the grumble of trash compactors, the occasional cockroach.


MONDELLO: It was almost like a set for a horror movie.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I had to nothing to stand on. Someone give me some...


MONDELLO: On screen where Karam is making one of the most assured directing debuts in ages, he's kept the apartment front and center by having us listen to characters as the camera wanders down hallways or appears at light filtering through windows that seem to have been last washed in the Nixon administration.


HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) I wish you had more of a view.

FELDSTEIN: (As Brigid) Mom, it's an interior courtyard.

HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) Oh. Well, perhaps we can all take a stroll in the interior courtyard after dinner.

MONDELLO: The environment is so authentic that it all but requires the performances to be, and they don't disappoint. Jayne Houdyshell's salt-of-the-earth mom is the one Broadway holdover, and she's breath-catchingly real. Just watch her face as she chooses a pastry after someone makes a crack about her weight. Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer as the daughters - they are all terrific. Not a silly accent or flashy line reading or snappy comeback anywhere in "The Humans" - just down-to-earthiness and the rich, comforting warmth of humanity. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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