The key to Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, largely accepted as the definitive take on Batman's clowny archnemesis, is its unpredictability. From scene to scene, moment to moment, there was no guessing what Ledger would do or explaining why he'd do it, down to vocal ticks and small physical gestures that suggested endless dangerous possibilities broiling just beneath the smeared paint, and in doing this he became chaos incarnate; Ledger successfully embodied a character who can't be defined, whose entire state of being is an enigma shrouded in opaque purple.
The actor who followed Ledger, Jared Leto, managed to pull off the very same feat, but he made the bold decision to do so five years later while playing Italian fashion designer Paolo Gucci in a film that has nothing to do with Batman, Ridley Scott's House of Gucci.
Buried under what appears to be roughly 75 pounds of leftover prosthetics from Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall that seems a little unnecessary once you learn the real Paolo Gucci kind of just looked like a guy, Leto attacks the role like a feral child raised away from humanity by a sentient can of Chef Boyardee.
Every single one of his line deliveries sounds like Waluigi getting increasingly frustrated at a busy Papa John's. It is, in no uncertain terms, the most chaotic thing to hit the screen since Ledger's Joker and anyone who says it isn't mesmerizing is a person you can comfortably cut out of your life. (The Paolo Gucci of your family, perhaps.) Good? Bad? Buddy, feed those simple terms to the pigeons.
That's probably what I love most about Leto's completely unhinged House of Gucci performance, that it opens up fascinating conversations about what audiences consider "good" and "bad" performances, what we see as distracting in an ensemble, and how all of that can change depending on context. In a vacuum, making Jared Leto look like a background Star Wars cantina goblin through makeup prosthetics and having him speak with an accent that Fabrizio from Titanic would call "a little-a much" could easily be classified as Not Great. In context, though, House of Gucci is an aesthetically odd beast.
The film ostensibly charts a tumultuous few years in the Italian fashion dynasty through the lens of Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), the socialite who married into the family through Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), the man she eventually hired a hitman to murder. It's all very sordid, but Scott seems deeply uninterested in the granular story details; House of Gucci is a crime epic set in an iconic fashion company that doesn't care too much about fashion, business, or the actual crime that happened at the intersection of both.
Instead, House of Gucci is one of the most Vibes Only films in recent memory. It's a gigantic, gorgeous mansion with echo-y hallways, and you just sort of wander through admiring the garish wallpaper and unimaginably expensive statues carved by a mad abstractionist. The actual details of Patrizia Reggiani's descent into murder matter far less than the fact Lady Gaga is 1000% committed to playing this woman like a Disney villain driven insane by the choice between an Italian and Russian accent; if Gaga wins the Oscar, it will be for any of the dozen times she is visibly trying to reduce her scene partner to ash through side-eye alone.
The plot point that sees Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) sent to jail for tax evasion is practically hand-waved aside to make room for Pacino's performance, which is like if his delivery of "great ass" in Heat came to life, settled down, and became a successful businessman. House of Gucci is less a gritty crime story than it is an opera, every cast member straight-up belting their whole character to the backseats but in a different tune.
From that angle, Leto is surfing this movie's messy wavelength more gracefully than anyone else. He is the clown in this commedia dell'arte, the tragic fool. In the movie Scott is presenting, a quiet, more internalized performance of Paolo Gucci wouldn't properly sell how hilariously sad this character is. If the inexplicably distracting prosthetic makeup is "distracting", it's only underscoring how much of an outsider he is even in a family filled with velvet-lined caricatures of Crazy Rich Italians. If Leto's quirks—the roller-coast accent, the inconsistent pitch and tone to every word, the wheezy laugh that sounds strikingly like my Sicilian grandfather attempting to eat struffoli at the age of 97—read to you as simply "bad" or "annoying," consider the symbolic implications of hating this largely innocent buffoon compared to his beautiful, sociopathic family members.
No, Paolo Gucci does not serve the same thematic place as the Joker, but the performance goals are the same. Every second they're on screen, purple-clad and cracked in the head, you are both drawn to and repelled by the sheer amount of choices being made at any given moment.
Or, to sum up Paolo's own philosophies, Leto is serving the audience a whole plate of what looks, sounds, and feels a whole lot like shit, but that's pure chocolate. Trust me, he knows.