“Two objects cannot occupy the same point in space; the same moment in time.”
When Ford v Ferrari, I couldn’t have been more nonplussed. The embracing that the movie got from both industry voters and mainstream audiences remains stupefying to me to this day due to its lackluster story and uninspiring execution. However, I imagine no one could have been more ruffled by that year’s biggest “dad” movie than director Michael Mann, who had spent decades trying to get his own big-budget feature about the life and legacy of Enzo Ferrari off the ground. Ford v Ferrari‘s popcorn approach certainly must’ve greatly differed from all the iterations of Mann’s vision with the biggest difference being the angle in which the two approach exploring the legend of Ferrari. All these years later, the director’s take finally gets to see the light of day, quickly blowing the former movie out of the water, but still not feeling quite like film fans were expecting him to make.
Set in 1957, Ferrari stars Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari, the head of the legendary empire who is trying to hold his company together amid bankruptcy. To convince the world that the brand still has fire, Enzo puts his cars to the test in a national race. Complicating matters even more is his relationship with longtime mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley) and his crumbling marriage to wife Laura (Penelope Cruz), who has major control of the company.
Given the central plot theme, some would go into Ferrari thinking they were getting a movie that’s primarily about racing and saving a business from ruin. Those people would be disappointed. The tension when it comes to the Ferrari business going under is handled with only a passing interest by everyone involved, save for a couple of explosive scenes featuring Laura and Enzo. Otherwise, most of the moments dealing with Enzo trying to save what he’s built are explored at such a base level, that you can’t help but feel Mann’s disinterest in that side of the story. It’s a disinterest that surprisingly also spills onto the racing portions of Ferrari. The practice races start as watchable without being overpowering, allowing those scenes to be about a variety of things. However, when the main race starts there’s a lack of energy that takes place which feels incredibly puzzling. Save for one jaw-dropping moment, there’s almost no ferocity to any of the racing portions of the movie, all of which are missing the kind of adrenaline you’d think would be a given for this story. A race of this kind of importance should mean more to us, but it doesn’t due to a false intensity that’s been forced into this side of the film.
Eventually, we come to realize that Ferrari is a movie about the people, not the cars, which is clear by the fact that Mann excels every time he has us spend genuine time with the figures on the screen. At the center of Ferrari is Enzo and Laura’s troubled marriage, which has all but diminished following the death of their son. A sequence that shows the couple attending an opera in which both are being flooded with memories of their son is perhaps one of the best character explorations Mann has ever made. Seeing this couple once in love (who still enjoy random bouts of passion) now living a compromised relationship that’s defined by past tragedies makes for some of the most interesting character dynamics Mann has captured on film in years. It’s fascinating to see these characters operate in Mann’s world, especially Laura, who isn’t painted as a glamorous cliché, but as an earthy force of nature and the true power of the Ferrari family. When she and Enzo are going back and forth about the business, we instantly recognize it as the root of their passion, both in a romantic sense and a volatile one. With their son gone, it’s all that’s left holding them together.
On the surface, Ferrari boasts some great casting and a trio of actors that can only make an audience excited. The results, however, are a mixed bag with each of the leads turning in a different kind of performance. Driver does the kind of dependable work you would expect him to do, but there’s a restrained quality that feels a bit odd. Maybe the actor was too afraid after the House of Gucci debacle to take his character here as far as he could. If his work is in the middle, Woodley’s is at the bottom due to the actress being unable to play either the period or the culture she’s from.
At the top is Cruz, who carries her performance beyond the obvious Oscar clip moments to create a full internally realized person whom she is able to carry all the way through. Ferrari becomes something different when she’s on screen; a searing portrait of a woman whose hold on a shaky empire has taken the place of the family she once had. Elsewhere, Patrick Dempsey (sporting hair so bleached, I don’t think it’s legal) and Jack O’Connell show up in curious supporting turns that are so brief, it’s a wonder how they got two such talented actors for the roles.
The most glaring flaw of Ferrari is that it feels like it never really gets started, probably because Mann doesn’t have much to add to the overall story he’s famously spent years trying to tell. The film is a well-made offering with a lush score, (mostly) solid acting, and a level of cinematography that captures the Italian countryside in a way few other films do. But none of this disguises the fact that the whole affair feels a bit passé, despite its fantastic angles, fades, and the powerhouse performance Cruz so generously gives it. But because Mann is Mann, the flaws fall by the wayside and Ferrari does eventually come together a somewhat rewarding experience that makes you realize what you’ve been watching actually worked more than it didn’t.