Movie Review: “Ferrari”

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Ferrari movie 2023 Adam Driver screen shot

It’s always interesting to detect themes that run through an artist’s career. Filmmaker Michael Mann, from “The Keep” to the “Miami Vice” television series to “Blackhat” and everything in between, constantly focuses on men (always men) who are exceptional in their chosen fields but whose personal lives are a bit of a mess. What’s more, there tends to be a direct correlation between that flawed world they’ve created and the same traits that have driven them to succeed. Mann’s oeuvre suggests that greatness always carries a price, and it’s when these men try to have it both ways that disaster soon follows. “Ferrari” is a continuation of that motif, focusing on the renowned automotive designer’s quest to be the best in the world while his home life increasingly frays. While that story is familiar, especially when told by Mann, it remains a compelling one that provides possibilities for terrific performances, amazing cinematography, and engaging drama. Unfortunately, this outing by the famed director is also marred by some bad acting, awkward CG, and story beats that don’t land as hard as they should. It’s a true mixed bag that feels like an extension of that combative dichotomy Mann loves to explore. There’s plenty here to entertain and impress, but the film still has deep flaws that threaten to derail it at any moment.

Former race car driver and current head of his own prestige sports car company, Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) finds himself at a crossroads professionally and personally. His marriage to Laura (Penelope Cruz) is terribly strained, made more so by the relatively recent death of their son. This stress upon the relationship is also compounded by his decade-long affair with Lina (Shailene Woodley), which has produced a bastard who Enzo refuses to publicly acknowledge as his son. Meanwhile, the company (which he co-runs with Laura) is almost completely broke and needs something to help them get more money and stay on top in the automotive world. Enzo banks on winning the Mille Miglia race to reclaim the company’s stature and survive its economic woes. While he recruits and prepares his drivers to win, almost at all costs, he remains divided—not just between work and home, but also between the two beds he shares.

“Ferrari” is an incredible mishmash. What it does well, it does very well; and what it does poorly, it does shockingly so. Driver delivers a tremendous performance that mixes the bombastic bravado of a passionate man striving to make others fulfill his vision, with the cold calculations that such a drive often requires from people, with the surprising warmth of his love for those truly close to him, with that befuddled aloofness of someone who cannot fathom how the rules apply to him. That’s a lot of layers to communicate and facets to vacillate between, but Driver pulls it off with aplomb. Enzo never feels like a collection of multiple people, but they’re all shades of one complicated figure that is fascinating to watch. Similarly, Cruz does some of the best acting of her (impressive) career as a woman devoted to her mostly detached husband while also matching his intense ambition, all while harboring major psychic wounds from the losses she has experienced and the betrayal she feels from the man closest to her. Cruz communicates the passion of Laura, that fiery will to succeed coupled with a deep sadness, entirely through her eyes. Given that Driver is onscreen for 90% of “Ferrari,” and he carries it upon his shoulders well, it’s likely that his commanding performance will unfortunately overshadow the terrific work that Cruz does.

But also unfortunate is that some of the other performances don’t quite meet the incredible standards of these two leads. Woodley is awkward in her role, never radiating the love that Lina clearly feels for Enzo but instead only stuck in a sullen mood. This is compounded by an inconsistent Italian accent that, when in use, is barely noticeable and, when not, is replaced by a very blunt Californian twang. The actor has excelled in other works (including “Dumb Money” just this year), but here she is adrift, which hurts one of the central points of conflict in “Ferrari.” Meanwhile Daniela Piperno, as Enzo’s mother, is essentially playing the impossible-to-please crone that disparages her son while also being fiercely protective of him to others. It’s a pretty rote character that Piperno does very little with. And while much of her actions and dialogue is based in fact, she gets no help from screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin who essentially pens her as the role of the dad from “Walk Hard” (literally saying “the wrong son died” at one point). Verisimilitude is important, but when it butts up against something that feels stereotypical, or has already been depicted as an absurd cliché, then writers need to seek other ways of approaching it.

The screenplay for “Ferrari” is also full of peaks and valleys. There are brilliant speeches made by characters and dialogues between roles that capture the heart of these people and the stakes of the situation. But there are also a lot of obvious lines and overly foreshadowing moments that are too melodramatic for a story steeped in such realism. Those elements truly stand out against the way that Mann directs the other scenes, a natural fluidity that allows Enzo to be larger than life but still pulled from the history books. Enzo is often overdramatic and demanding, but Mann and Driver make it feel like a real character trait and not something showy and heavy-handed. Certain dramatic moments are far too underscored, by Kennedy Martin’s script and Mann’s direction, that doesn’t trust the audience to understand the emotional depths that are on display. A flashy tragic moment involving racing in “Ferrari” is ruined through such ominous, underlined shots and speech; meanwhile, the taut discussion between Enzo and Laura is far more riveting than any of the many intense driving scenes.

Speaking of the driving scenes, DP Erik Messerschmidt shoots the entire film beautifully but really excels during those moments depicting the power of the Ferrari engine. Viewers can feel the speed, and the danger, in those moments that truly immerses them in the world that Enzo seeks to control. Unfortunately, a couple of those moments are hideously marred by some truly awful CG that is cartoonishly bad. While there’s a certain naturalism to all of Messerschmidt’s camerawork in “Ferrari,” indeed to Mann’s direction as well, these moments of artifice stand out so egregiously that it becomes jarring—almost always undoing whatever emotion is meant to be felt. Which, again, is a real shame as Mann and Messerschmidt create a very cool sense of palette of a rustic villa when Enzo is with Lina, a baroque decadence when he is with Laura, and a metallic sleekness when he is working on the cars. Much like the lead performances, these visuals never feel desperate but like they all exist in one world—specifically within one man’s world.

“Ferrari” is a mostly beautiful film with mostly good performances in a mostly compelling story. That’s a lot of “mostly.” The problem with that qualifier is that when any of those areas do falter, they falter so severely that it undoes so much of what has been accomplished. It is a sumptuous movie powered by tremendous visuals and performances that occasionally aggressively pushes audiences away, almost daring them to forget all the good that has come before. It’s unfortunate that it is so marred, but Mann has still crafted a mostly engaging experience that highlights a complicated man whose contradictions were either part of his genius or what hindered him from true greatness. That same question cannot be asked of all the flaws of “Ferrari,” as it is readily apparent how much they hold back an otherwise spectacular film.

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