A scene from “Ferrari,” starring Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari.
The story of Italian racing car magnate Enzo Ferrari has been a dream project for director Michael Mann for more than 20 years, and he has delivered a handsome movie. It showcases beautiful cars, luxurious clothes, and luscious Northern Italian settings, as well as several racecar scenes that are as good as any ever filmed.
But a weakness in “Ferrari” — and it’s considerable — is that Mann allows the audience to ask the one question that filmmakers should never allow audiences to even consider: So, what?
Mann doesn’t really have an answer, except to point again to the cars, the slick Italian suits and the 1957 period setting. That’s fine, but please, what’s the intention here? Is there something interesting or important to the actual story of Enzo Ferrari, apart from the trappings that surround it?
If there is, it’s not apparent in the movie. “Ferrari” isn’t anywhere close to terrible, but with its sparsely detailed plot and its remote title character, there’s little to propel the action.
The film takes place over the course of three months, and it would be reasonable to assume that if you’re going to make an entire movie about a guy and yet show only three months of his life, those should be juicy, action-packed months. But at the time we meet Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), he is already a silver-haired business tycoon, with his biggest struggles behind him. His greatest challenges now are in his personal life.
Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in “Ferrari.”
Photo: Courtesy Neon
His estranged wife and business partner Laura (Penelope Cruz, who is the liveliest thing in the movie) is waving a gun at him, because he’s an unfaithful husband. Meanwhile, his mistress (Shailene Woodley) is asking if she can christen her son with the last name Ferrari. He’d like her to, but he’s not sure yet.
On the business side, car sales are down, and the reputation of the Ferrari brand is losing ground to Maserati. To boost the company’s public profile, Enzo decides that Ferrari will enter the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race that takes place throughout Italy.
That’s what passes for a plot, but here’s the problem: From an audience’s vantage point, what would be so bad if Enzo doesn’t win the Mille Miglia?
Even if we believed it’s possible that he might lose his business — again, folks — so what? He’d still be a wealthy bigshot and get to wear those fancy suits. There’s not much at stake here to command an audience’s concern and interest.
Also, though his personal problems were probably very dramatic as far as he was concerned, Enzo was not the first wealthy businessman to cheat on his wife. Certainly, that’s not what made him unique, so why build half the story around his marital difficulties? Nobody buys a ticket to a movie called “Ferrari” just to see a guy arguing with his wife.
Penelope Cruz in “Ferrari.” Photo: Neon
As Enzo Ferrari, Driver looks stylish and commanding, but the movie doesn’t figure out how to make him into an interesting man. Yes, in a sense, he’s interesting because he’s Ferrari, but one can’t help but suspect that the most compelling iteration of this character existed years before the movie begins — the man who started the Ferrari company.
“Ferrari”: Drama. Starring Adam Driver, Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley. Directed by Michael Mann. (R. 130 minutes.) In theaters Monday, Dec. 25.
Throughout, the American actors playing Italian characters attempt to give an Italian inflection by speaking English with an Italian accent. This is a common practice, and the results are acceptable, but it doesn’t work as well as it did in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” which was pitched right on the border between drama and farce. In a straight drama, the use of accents seems a touch old-fashioned.
Still, the racing scenes are good enough to make “Ferrari” into a break-even proposition. There’s one catastrophic crash scene, in particular, that’s so harrowing it’s unforgettable.
Reach Mick LaSalle: [email protected]