'Ferrari': When You’re Here, You’re Family
The biopic is director Michael Mann's first movie in eight years.
The director Michael Mann has always prided himself on holding high standards of verisimilitude. He hired real criminals to train James Caan and Robert De Niro to play safecrackers and bank robbers in Thief and Heat; sets for Last of the Mohicans were built only using the precise techniques available in 1757; he made Will Smith undergo a year of training in both boxing and Islamic studies to play the title role in Ali. So when it came time to cast his dramatization of several especially tumultuous months in the life of the Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari, Mann naturally recognized that the best possible person to portray a 59-year-old Italian man was Adam Driver, a 40-year-old from San Diego.
This is Driver’s second foray into playing a historical Italian figure, after Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci; I assume he’ll soon be taking the lead in biopics of Mussolini, Pavarotti, and Fellini as well. Some may initially question the sagacity of repeatedly tasking this immensely talented, not-even-remotely Italian actor with playing roles that require him to affect the dialect of the Super Mario Bros., but that’s only because they have yet to experience 32-year-old San Bernardino native Shailene Woodley playing Ferrari’s 46-year-old mistress, Linda Lardi, also a native of Italy. Comparatively, Driver could not be seem any more authentic if he’s spent a week waiting tables at the Olive Garden (which I believe is how method actor Jared Leto prepared for his role in House of Gucci).
Mann made eight feature films between 1981 and 2004, six of which are incredible (Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Collateral), one of which is excellent (Manhunter), and one of which is probably better than Mann admits (The Keep). During the second half of his career, he has set even greater challenges for himself, of which making the audience confuse Mr. Driver for Giancarlo Giannini is simply the latest, after trying to make Colin Farrell a convincing Floridian cop in Miami Vice, trying to make Chris Hemsworth a convincing Midwestern genius in Blackhat, and trying to make Johnny Deep a convincing human being from the planet Earth in Public Enemies. Safer casting choices, like Penélope Cruz as Ferrari’s wife, a character from the same continent as Ms. Cruz and a mere decade her senior, were almost certainly mandated by evil, money-hungry financiers.
Fortunately, Mann is boundlessly fearless, and ain’t no Hollywood suit gonna hold him down - and so Ferrari is as daring with its narrative as it is with its casting choices.
The film takes place in 1957, just a year after the death of Enzo’s son, Dino. His wife and business partner, Laura, has grown increasingly mentally unstable in the aftermath, so, understandably, he’s not telling her about his secret second family, which includes another son who has none of the first boy’s health issues. Then his best racer is killed in a horrific accident while test driving a Ferrari, and his accountant shows up to let him know he’s on the cusp of financial ruin. And that’s just the first half-hour; if you know your history, you that poor old Enzo’s life is about to get even harder the moment you hear the words “Mille Miglia.”
Any hack with no ambition greater than simply telling an engaging story might have chosen to spend more than a few minutes right at the end of the movie on the fallout from that fateful and fatal race, but Mann courageously ends the film as that fallout is just beginning, so that we can all get our phones out during the closing credits and Google what happened next. Mann is clearly interested in the audience learning to educate itself and not depend on him to hold their hand and explain everything to them all the time like a bunch of idiot babies.
Ferrari does, occasionally, show flashes of the Michael Mann of yore, predominantly in its adrenalized racing scenes and one of the most gruesomely-distressing car crashes ever shown outside of a Final Destination movie. But then Patrick Dempsey shows up as Piero Taruffi and you remember what movie you’re actually watching. Praise be to the Olive Garden.