Review: Michael Mann’s 'Ferrari' Gives Us The Man And The Legend, But It’s Not Quite A Triumph

Dec 21, 2023 at 12:37 pm
Adam Driver again takes an Italian job in Ferrari.
Adam Driver again takes an Italian job in Ferrari. Photo by Lorenzo Sisti.

Ferrari Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Troy Kennedy Martin, based on the book by Brock Yates. Opens December 25.

"Ferrari" gives Adam Driver a second chance to give an award-worthy performance as a real person with an Italian accent.

Some of you may remember when Driver slapped on an accent to play doomed fashion magnate Maurizio Gucci in Ridley Scott’s biopic "House of Gucci" a couple years back. Performing alongside Lady Gaga, Al Pacino, and a nutty-as-fuck Jared Leto, all giving scenery-chewing turns that hilariously bordered on near-offensive parody, Driver gave perhaps the most credible performance in that movie.

"Ferrari" has everyone performing with straight faces, with Driver’s Enzo Ferrari chief among them. Rocking gray hair and pants above his abdomen, Driver plays the former racer turned auto giant as a no-nonsense businessman trying to keep his business afloat (and legacy alive) by pushing his racers to achieve precision and perfection on the tracks.

Of course, those two things are nowhere in his personal life. He has a wife/business partner (Penelope Cruz, fiery as always) who’s literally ready to pop a cap into him (their first scene together has her firing a warning shot past him) over his extramarital affairs. This may explain why she doesn’t know about the mistress (Shailene Woodley) and son (Giuseppe Fesitine) he’s got stashed away across town. (It appears everybody else knows about them, though.)

"Ferrari" is about a man who’s equally consumed by ambition and grief. Although it takes place in sunny Italy during the summer of 1957 (cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt brings a dry gleam to the visuals, making scenes look stylishly humid — even indoors — while bringing out the characters’ olive-skinned complexions), death hangs over this picture like a murky cloud. In one scene, Enzo and his wife both visit the family mausoleum (separately, of course), where their late son lays. Not too soon after, Ferrari witnesses the death of one of his racers, with the racer’s girlfriend just a couple feet away from him. Later on, racers (including a bleach-blond Patrick Dempsey) write goodbye notes in their hotel the night before a big race, just in case they don’t make it to the finish line.

Enzo stalks around the movie like an arrogant captain of industry and a reluctant angel of death. As most of the movie has him grooming a young, hot racer (Gabriel Leone) to compete in a treacherous race known as the Mille Miglia, the old man knows this kid has a 50/50 chance of coming out of this an alive-and-kicking star. “We all know it’s our deadly passion, our terrible joy,” he says to a roomful of racers during a quietly intense monologue.

I wish I could be as enthused about "Ferrari" as my fellow film critic colleagues, who’ve been calling it one of the year’s best. Adapted from a biography by the late auto journalist Brock Yates (who wrote the first "Cannonball Run" movie), Mann presents a decent, competent portrait of a flawed legend. A project he’s been trying to get made since the ‘90s (screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin passed away of lung cancer in 2009 before seeing this film get made), "Ferrari" is another in a long line of Mann films about a meticulous man who strives for order and success in his professional life, especially since his personal life is all kinds of fucked up. Enzo Ferrari may not have been a lawman or a criminal, like so many of Mann’s previous protagonists. But, in Mann’s mind, he was just as, shall we say, driven as they were.

You don’t have to like cars to like this movie, but it helps. - eros hoagland
eros hoagland
You don’t have to like cars to like this movie, but it helps.

There are some impressive, nowhere-near-cheesy racing scenes, especially in the third act. But as far as biopics go, "Ferrari" does feel quite routine. The movie even gives Enzo a bitchy, aging mother (Daniela Piperno) who actually utters “the wrong son died.” (Something tells me Mann hasn’t seen "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.")

If anything, Mann presents "Ferrari" as a Great Man Biopic that also doubles as an operatic tragedy. Just in case you don’t pick up on that vibe, he also throws in a sequence where Enzo attends an opera, flashing back to several joyful/painful moments from his life. With all the literal blood, sweat, and tears that get spilled throughout "Ferrari," I now understand why those cars are so gotdamn expensive.