I Got a Fast Car: Mann Gets Glossy with Longstanding Labor of Love
For his first theatrical release in eight years and his second biopic following 2001’s Ali, Michael Mann’s Ferrari finally completes its twenty year gestation period after a handful of false starts and various high profile re-casting. Partially based on journalist Brock Yates’ 1991 publication Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine, Mann pares down the proceedings to one detrimental year in the life of the iconic automobile entrepreneur. But Mann’s reputation and the creative energy he’s funnelled into the material hangs over the final product like an albatross, arguably devoid of the visual signature which has defined his filmography.
The script’s parameters are feasible, detailing Ferrari’s struggle in 1957 to avoid bankruptcy while reclaiming his brand’s title as fastest record from the likes of Jaguar and Maserati and juggling significant domestic dilemmas with his wife and mistress. But there’s an unavoidable element of shlock thanks to casting choices and a decision to make this a dubious Italian accented English language production. Still, there’s no arguing Mann’s production quality and keen sense of pacing, which makes for an enjoyable, if compromised film.
The film opens with a blurb about how Enzo (Adam Driver) and his wife Laura Ferrari (Penelope Cruz) founded Ferrari S.p.A in 1947 before the film opens a decade later, his relationship in shambles due to the death of their teenage son Alfredo in 1956. Determined to focus on building cars for racing rather than for selling, Ferrari is nearing a free fall unless Enzo can turn the beat around, which requires him joining with another company for capital to produce more cars. But he requires complete control of his brand, so it appears the only option is for Ferrari to reclaim the racing track record, recently claimed by Maserati. When the death of his second race-car driver seems to be a setback, providence arrives in the form of cocky young driver Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone). The plan is for Ferrari to take home top prize at the upcoming Mille Miglia race, which will ensure the sales they need for justifying production. Making a covert deal with the press to start rumors about a potential merger with Ford brings Fiat into the fold as Ferrari’s economic savior. But bubbling in the background of this drama is the irate Laura, who discovers Enzo not only has a mistress, Lina (Shailene Woodley), but also a ten year old son, Piero. Determined to ensure Enzo does not claim Piero, which would make him an heir to their empire, her schemes threaten to ruin his best laid plans.
Working for the first time with Mann, Erik Messerschmidt (who has been David Fincher’s main cinematographer for the past decade) attempts to work through this gloomy, anxiety-laden world by following hot on the heels of Driver. There are plenty of sequences with close-ups featuring the back of his head, as if the world were finally catching up to a man ahead of his time while he struggles to maintain his position. At this point in time, Ferrari was nearing sixty years of age, and even with gray locks and a lined forehead, Driver doesn’t feel quite in this vicinity.
Luckily, the film doesn’t descend into the egregiously campy chaos of Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (2021), where Driver also was miscast as a famed Italian, and this is partially due to the somewhat sensible script from Troy Kennedy Martin and Mann (although there are a number of lazy cliches, such as sex on the kitchen table when passions boil over, etc.). Likewise, Penelope Cruz fares better as Laura Ferrari than she did as Donatella Versace in the Ryan Murphy series “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” Gone is her wooden tongue clicking through dense dialect, replaced with a fiery rage as a wronged woman. When she discovers the existence of not only his mistress but another son, the film finally hits a strain of anxiety that all its race scenes do not. Scouring the countryside to find Lina, she personifies a sense of “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of Ferrari’s son.” Sticking out like a sore thumb is Shailene Woodley, as miscast here as she was in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, 2016. She’s eclipsed only by a twee performance from the child playing her son, young Piero, who, of course, eventually becomes the sole heir.
Since it’s a Michael Mann production, a whole slew of notable actors pop up in the periphery with little to do, including Jack O’Connell, Patrick Dempsey, and Sarah Gadon. Only Cruz and Gabriel Leone as the doomed race car driver Alfonso De Portago make a veritable emotional impression. In the last forty minutes of the film, Mann builds to a crescendo at Mille Miglia, where a tragic fluke accident claims the lives of nine bystanders, creating an unexpected spike in the film’s blood pressure. As the titular entrepreneur, Driver is the film’s stable lynchpin, but Mann only scratches the surface of his obsessive, self-centered behavior, while not really showcasing the disastrous ripple effects of his desires nor the resulting legacy of his accomplishments. Ultimately, Ferrari feels like a tightly wound vanity project which really needs to blow a head gasket.
Reviewed on August 31st at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – In Competition. 130 Mins.