Noah Baumbach, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, Leos Carax, Ridley Scott — that’s the ever-growing catalog of directors Adam Driver has worked with. And with Ferrari, add Michael Mann to that list.

To work with an auteur is to plug into their world. Driver isn’t exactly versatile as an actor, but there is something undeniably magnetic about his physicality and the odd cadence of his voice. His presence feels classic in the way he fits into such a wide array of films. The gaps between Adam Sackler, Kylo Ren, and the guy who punched the wall in Marriage Story are not so wide. (They are all meme-able?) 

Thematically, Ferrari is pure Michael Mann shit: the portrait of a man trapped by his own desires. Here, Mann unravels the myth of Italian engineer Enzo Ferrari, whose aerodynamic sports cars would define a generation of high-end automotive design. But at what cost? the movie asks, begging us to care while never exactly making clear how running a team of drivers gets Enzo to a legacy-defining car brand.

Driver’s Ferrari is a man in conflict, reeling from the loss of his son, in love with his mistress (Shailene Woodley), out of love with his wife and business partner Laura (Penélope Cruz), and handling a car manufacturing business that is on the brink of insolvency. Ferrari is in the red, which seems fitting given the company’s iconic color palette.

Every swerve feels imprecise, and each detour just takes the film further in an unclear direction

A biopic often takes the scope of an entire life, and I appreciate that Mann has resisted that in Ferrari. That said, Driver feels miscast and sometimes confused, his Italian accent not having improved since House of Gucci. (It feels like Woodley is in the movie solely to make Driver’s Italian accent sound persuasive by comparison.) But it’s less the performance itself than what the thin script asks him to carry. Character motivation feels assumed rather than animated. Enzo laments that his rivals at Maserati only enter competitions to support the business, whereas his pursuit is the purer inverse: sell cars to race.

I just wish that passion were more convincing. Sure, nobody likes accounting, but it takes an intense suspension of disbelief to watch Enzo be shocked to hear how low the sales of Ferrari automobiles he makes are. (Why wouldn’t he already know?) We never get the sense that he even likes designing cars, racing, or winning. Mann’s best film, the cat-and-mouse heist thriller Heat, is a story of two men who deeply appreciate how good the other is at their job. Meanwhile, is Enzo Ferrari actually a good engineer? We see him with a blueprint a couple of times, I guess. Is he managing his drivers well? Definitely not, as an early (and strangely comic) scene shows a crash that sends a driver’s body flying into the air like a rag doll. Later, over wine and pasta, Enzo tries to inspire his racers: it’s “our deadly passion, our terrible joy.” (If that line sounds inspired, it’s actually cribbed from Enzo Ferrari’s memoir, My Terrible Joys.)

I want to credit Ferrari for being a weirder movie than you might expect for a biopic about a guy who builds iconic sports cars. But every swerve feels imprecise, and each detour just takes the film further in an unclear direction.

Lost in the shuffle is Cruz, who overcomes some strangely blocked scenes to deliver a performance that is familiar and inspired. She’s angry and bitter about Enzo’s decisions; still, there’s a warmth for her husband that emerges. (Mann’s history of writing women has highs and lows, and I’m happy to report this is the former.) Laura Ferrari is an unpredictable character, one that, moment to moment, you’ll have no idea how she’ll respond. It’s more thrilling than seeing a classic Ferrari take the track.

Speaking of which, even the race sequences, of which there are only a scant pair, feel underwhelming. They’re not loud or stimulating or muscular. The sound design feels off. (This was at least the case at the New York Film Festival press screening I attended.) The constructions of the race are confusing, and I found myself unclear on how points were scored or winners determined.

Even Driver can’t save this one. In the end, your mileage may simply vary based on how much you like Mann’s organizing principle: that masculinity is… a trap. It’s an old idea that’s worked throughout his career, and at age 81, there is something compelling about seeing a film legend pursue the same argument. Obsession and ambition are his thematic staples, after all.

Or maybe Michael Mann is merely going in circles, his pace slowing as the movies become less exceptional. In the world of Ferrari, that would just be another lap.

Ferrari is in theaters December 25th, 2023.

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