It can be difficult business to give a real-life figure the cinematic treatment. Ideally you want a subject that’s compelling on a human level as well as a dramatic one. It’s a delicate balance to maintain. Some people who may be superficially interesting may not be worth rooting for, either as a hero or a villain. On the other side of things, if the audience already knows the outcome of a particular story or aspect of the main person’s life, the stakes can be rendered all but moot. In some cases, these trappings may be unavoidable, but a genuinely great storyteller can still make them endlessly entertaining and poignant under the right circumstances.
For the most part, this is not the case with Michael Mann’s Ferrari, a profile of the eponymous luxury sports car company founder. Taking a sort of mob film approach to Enzo Ferrari’s life, Mann does offer a few intriguing moments here and there, but misses the larger potential of the project by taking things far too seriously trying to wring tension where there’s basically none. It also doesn’t help that there were about 4,712 credited Executive Producers on this picture, a clear indication that there were too many proverbial cooks in this particular kitchen.
The first major issue for me, it has to be said, is Adam Driver. He’s one of my favorite actors, but he feels woefully miscast here. He affects the same bad Italian accent he used in House of Gucci, only it’s more glaring because this time he’s playing a character who isn’t being manipulated by vagina. As Enzo, he projects an image of total control, even when that’s not the case, and as such his machismo is undercut by the silliness of the dialect. Second is that as part of his domineering attitude, he has a taut relationship with his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and a son with his mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley) that I don’t buy for a second. I know sometimes affairs are based more on a power dynamic than actual attraction, but in what universe do you cheat on Penélope Cruz for Shailene fucking Woodley? That’s almost as dumb as the Snow White movies that wholly relied on the premise that Kristen Stewart was hotter than Charlize Theron. I’m not saying they aren’t good looking, but there’s a clear correct answer to this equation, and the films expect us to opt for the wrong one. Third, the makeup job on Driver, which is somehow shortlisted for the Oscar, makes him look like the Dollar Store equivalent of Anderson Cooper. Essentially, there’s very little in Adam Driver’s countenance and performance as Enzo Ferrari that inspires much confidence.
This extends to the main plot. Set in the late 1950s, Ferrari is on the brink of bankruptcy, investing far too much money on a semi-lavish lifestyle and not being able to offset expenses for his racing cars with sales from his commercial vehicles. In a last-ditch bid to stay afloat, he decides that he must merge with one his rivals (Fiat, Lamborghini, or Alfa Romeo), and in order to attract a competitive business relationship, he gambles the future of the company on the outcome of the prestigious Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile race around Italy. This is hard to take at face value because a) “Mille Miglia” sounds like a brand of frozen pasta dinners, and b) it’s only been four years since Ford v. Ferrari, a movie where we learn all too well that Enzo eventually succeeds and becomes the dominant force in motorsports.
This robs the film of any suspense in the A-story, so we have to rely on the B-plot to carry the day. Thankfully, it succeeds in droves. Cruz commands every scene she’s in as she slowly exacts her revenge on Enzo for his infidelity, knowing that no matter what power or confidence he tries to show in public, in reality she’s the one keeping things together. Laura owns 50% of the company, having built it with Enzo when they were just starting out, and in order for Enzo to have proper bargaining leverage, she has to sign her shares over to him. She agrees to do so, but on conditions that make things extremely difficult for her estranged husband. Not only does she want half a million dollars — which will tank the company if she cashes the check before a merger deal is brokered — but she also wants Enzo’s assurance that he will not acknowledge his illegitimate son Piero (Giuseppe Festinese) with the Ferrari name while she is still alive, a hard rebuttal to Lina’s insistence that Enzo grant him the name for his upcoming Confirmation. In Laura’s eyes, Lina and Piero are replacements for her and their late son Dino, who died of illness a year before the film’s events. The righteous anger and almost seductive glee she takes in knowing she’s got Enzo figuratively (and sometimes literally) by the balls makes for one of her most enjoyable performances in a while. In a year where both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress look to be stacked fields come Oscar time, I hope there’s a chance she can sneak in on one of the categories.
The other saving grace of the movie is the racing scenes themselves. For the most part (I’ll explain the shortfalls in a moment), they’re immaculately shot and edited, with superior sound (the film is shortlisted in this area as well) that really makes you feel like you’re in the car without having to take things to a first-person perspective like in Gran Turismo. If there’s one major way where this film outshines its spiritual forebears, it’s in the fact that most of these cars have open air cockpits, meaning one false move can flip the vehicle out so severely that it decapitates and/or dismembers the driver. As intense as Ford v. Ferrari or Gran Turismo could be at times, that sense of danger wasn’t nearly as palpable as it is here.
The problem with it is that Mann leans too far into the gravity of the situation, and as such comes off like he’s cutting some narrative and production corners. At two separate points in the film, you can tell that a driver is about to die because the dialogue and framing of the scene so clearly marks them for death that there’s absolutely no tension in the buildup or thrill in the payoff. The fact that the likes of Eugenio Castellotti (Marino Franchitti, Dario’s brother), Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey), Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell), and Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) barely even register beyond the level of background characters only reinforces this. But even worse, there’s so much obvious foreshadowing of a massive tragedy on the track, that when the moment finally comes, I sat in the theatre and laughed my ass off because of how sloppily and sillily it was ultimately delivered. Seriously, wait for the moment, watch its aftermath, and tell me that you didn’t at least chuckle at how stupid it was.
In the end, this boils down to Enzo Ferrari just not being all that enthralling of a character. We know he’s a rich asshole who eventually got richer, his products are only accessible to assholes as rich as him, and given other recent Hollywood adaptations, we know that he’s going to overcome this one particular moment of adversity that he faces. So why do we care? Honestly, we don’t, and we can’t unless there are appropriate human moments to balance things out. Cruz does a ton of heavy lifting to get us to the point that this becomes watchable, but that’s about it outside of the various audio/visual elements. This film had a lot of promise, but like the runner-up in a marquee race, it comes up short and will ultimately be forgotten.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy racing movies, and if so, which is your favorite? Can we please have an Italian dialect coach that doesn’t come to work drunk every day? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!