'House of Versace': Haute couture camp gives way to marked-down mediocrity in Lifetime biopic
The trailer for tonight's Donatella Versace biopic promised high camp to match the high fashion, focusing on diva moments from the legendary designer's years-long meltdown. We were teased by the image of Gina Gershon (an actress not exactly known for her subtlety) mugging to the camera, slurring catty one-liners in a valiant attempt at appropriating Versace's Italian growl. In short, it felt as if it had all the elements for a classic Lifetime schlockfest -- the sort of so-bad-it's-great thing that the network has become known for.
Instead, what we were given was something that's begun happening all too often on the cable net lately: A boring non-event. Whereas the trailer peddled the film with the tongue-in-cheek "This is bananas and we know it, we love it" approach, the actual creators of the film seem to have been striving for something a bit more high-minded -- something Lifetime films have never been especially good at.
The film, based on Deborah Ball's book "House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival," has a lot of ground to cover in telling the story of Versace's rise, fall and rebirth, and often feels as if it focused its time and attention for too long in the wrong areas. Beginning in 1997, with Gianni Versace (played here by Enrico Colantoni, "Veronica Mars") on top of the fashion world, the film spends roughly one-quarter of its run-time establishing the relationship between the complicated designer and his sister, his muse. While their relationship is certainly important to the story -- central, in fact -- waiting 30 minutes to reach the murder of Gianni (the event that kickstarts Donatella's singular story) forces the film to shove six years worth of story into it's remaining hour and a half.
As a result, Donatella's grief over her loss, her epic downward spiral and phoenix-like rise from the ashes all feel much too rushed to have any sort of impact. There's no time for fun, no time to let her meltdown feel real (or her redemption earned) because there's just too much story to tell.
Lest my criticism be confused, allow me to make clear: I'm not saying that "House of Versace" ought to have been a feature-length version of Maya Rudolph's old "SNL" parody of Donatella. However, the film could have used an injection of fun. There's such a lack of inventiveness that it's almost a disservice to the subjects who are so known for their outsized flair and artistic visions.
And for the excuse that the creators were going for a realistic look at the Versace family's story, they fail on that end, as well. Early in the film, Donatella is forced to miss daughter Allegra's dance recital to instead represent the company on set for a photo shoot, which mostly involves bumping cocaine with the photographer and asking the male model if he'd like to pose naked. The shoot featured in the scene is a recreation of an iconic ad from the late '90s that featured Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymour and Nadja Auermann. It's a big-deal spread, and the look of it is dutifully recreated (except there's an African-American model in the shot in the film, which isn't accurate), but the film makes no attempt to even mention this. The women cast as the models don't even bear any resemblance to the icons used in real life. For a film that seems to want to be realistic and accurate, this blunder says to the audience: We didn't really bother to do any research.
No one watches Lifetime for nuanced, award-worthy biopics. The network, home to the wretched "Dance Moms" and films with titles like "The Husband She Met Online" (Look for that doozy Oct. 26!) seems to know this, with the way it allows its promo department to celebrate the basest elements of all its programming, making the singularly boring experience that is "House of Versace" such a head-scratcher.