When I’d first heard about a Ferrari movie, I was somewhat skeptical. Everyone doesn’t need a biopic, and if this was just another look at a rich mogul making something most people will never experience, I wasn’t too interested. Luckily, I neglected to consider that it would be made by Michael Mann. As such, Ferrari eschews a cradle to the grave story in favor of a pivotal point in the man’s life. Even if it’s stalling out on occasion, there’s pep in its step, making for a largely enjoyable flick. Playing as the Closing Night Selection of the New York Film Festival, it’s a bit of muscular star power, in service of strong actors and a filmmaker thrilled to be at work again.
Ferrari is telling two stories, both of which are interesting on their own, but don’t always mesh super well together. There’s a tale of a visionary struggling to keep his autonomy and see his passion project through to glory. There’s also a depiction of a troubled marriage, wracked by tragedy. Both of them have their highlights, and combined present a fuller picture of this moment in Ferrari’s life, but merged, they also make for a bumpier ride than you’d like.
We’re introduced to Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) first as a younger man, driving in a race, determined to when. Then, we cut to him waking up in bed, entangled with a woman, before dressing, kissing a young boy, and driving away. While he’s leaving that home, we see another woman receiving phone calls from Ferrari’s employees, giving him his daily updates within the industry. As we learn when he arrives, he was at the home of Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), his mistress, and his wife Laura Ferrari (Penélope Cruz) has had it. She doesn’t care about his affairs, but he’s promised to always be home before the maid, and he’s broken that promise today. Especially today, on the anniversary of their son’s death, it stings.
While we watch Enzo and Laura struggle, especially the latter as she learns about the child he’s fathered with Lina, we watch as the company struggles financially, unable to meet the demand for their high end vehicles. Resistant to another company joining forces, fearful that Fiat or Ford would take control, it’s up to the drivers to win a very important race to establish them even further. Of course, the cars are incredibly dangerous, with death lurking just around every corner. Eager young drivers like Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone) were almost flipping a coin with their lives every time they got behind the wheel.
Penélope Cruz is best in show, while Adam Driver is a cool customer as our title character. Cruz gets an early comedic highlight, though her role is often of the more tragic variety. She brings depth to a character that’s had so much taken from her, It’s easily one of her strongest performances to date. Driver doesn’t always let us underneath his skin here, but it’s intentional. Watching the man struggle to keep control as everything around him is shifting, that’s just compelling cinema. As for Shailene Woodley, she does what she can, but the role is underwritten and she’s a bit miscast. Gabriel Leone is solid as well, while the supporting cast includes Patrick Dempsey, Sarah Gadon, Jack O’Connell, and more.
Director Michael Mann films the hell out of the racing sequences. In particular, a later crash is not just surprising, but as horrifying as anything you’ve seen this year. Prepare to be shocked. He’s clearly fascinated with Enzo Ferrari and his world. At the same time, the script he had a hand in, also credited to Troy Kennedy Martin and Brock Yates, is wobblier. The middle of the film in particular, doesn’t really bring together the two parts of Ferrari’s world in a smooth manner. Mann comes alive once the races are a bigger focus, and also highlights some light comedy early on, but there are fits and starts here with the movie.
Ferrari welcomes back Michael Mann, for sure, but it’s also somewhat of a standard issue biopic. The racing elements, alongside the supporting performance of Cruz, help to set it apart. Still, this isn’t in the upper echelon of NYFF titles this year. At the same time, it’s certainly good work, largely entertaining, and well worth seeing.