The cars are the stars in “Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend,” a pamphletized biopic that does the easy thing — beautifying Italy and vintage automobiles — but stalls with everything involving humans.
Starring Frank Grillo as the titular engineer and carmaker in middle age, writer-director Bobby Moresco’s admiring portrait is a gauzy, stuffy showroom piece that romanticizes everything from piazzas and vineyards to factory floors and car engines but never gets out of first gear in dramatizing a dreamer’s achievement or — when it came to upsetting the dominance of Ferrari in the auto world — a competitor’s drive.
The latter element is tritely illustrated by the recurring use of an imagined nighttime drag race in which Grillo, behind the wheel of his character’s famous ‘70s Countach design, squares off on a lonely road against Ferrari (Gabriel Byrne) in one of his ‘80s-era models. But no matter how many times Moresco returns to this invented showdown — one car edging past the other, but no, wait, now the other guy’s ahead, just like in the story! — it’s never thrilling or illuminating.
Then again, neither is the only dialogue scene between the two actors, in which we’re primed for a gauntlet-throwing exchange and instead get a listless taunt from our upstart hero about Ferrari’s inferior clutches, followed by the other guy’s brooding exit. This is a rivalry? (One would expect way more from the guy who won an Oscar for co-writing a movie made up entirely of butting-heads situations: “Crash.”)
Before that moment, however, it’s the pretty but flavorless early days in which young Ferruccio (Romano Reggiani), inspired by his mechanical training in World War II, defies his grape-growing farmer dad (Fortunato Cerlino) by going into tractor-building instead of tractor-operating. He partners with his best friend Matteo (Matteo Leoni) and gets support from his adoring wife Clelia (Hannah van der Westhuysen) but loses both — one to tragedy, the other to arrogance.
None of it is especially interesting, however, because Moresco’s dreary dialogue is forever stuck in the declarative (“I have an idea”) or lessons-learned banal (“Things go wrong, no matter your intentions”). It’s the great-man-of-history approach that time and time again has felled biopics; inherently intriguing conflict and character details get lost in a blueprint that prioritizes hitting timeline marks instead of believable human interaction. Here, scenes feel pigeonholed instantaneously by whether the characters are smiling or serious-looking.
When Grillo eventually appears — starting with the chapter prosaically titled “The Golden Years,” set in the early ‘60s — the problem becomes a whispery, pug-like performance that in no way flows from Reggiani’s blandly moody male-model version. With Mira Sorvino relegated to teary, forlorn looks and not much else as neglected second wife Annita, and a miscast Byrne phoning in his cameo as ideal and adversary, that leaves only hope that the creation of Lamborghini’s first iconic touring car, considered one of the most beautiful ever built, will generate excitement.
But again, it’s cardboard drama: Grillo in his hesitant accent demanding things be done faster and better, or drawing on a napkin, or swooning over a lovingly revealed bull-logo name plate design. That’s all well and good for a 30-second commercial about the Lamborghini brand but hardly the stuff that promises “The Man Behind the Legend.” It’s certainly not there in a pair of scenes with his grown son son Tonino (Lorenzo Vigano), one of which is overshadowed by a gorgeous, pristine Lamborghini motorboat.
The cinematography of Gianfilippo Corticelli and Blasco Guirato is serviceably elegant, helping a modest production that wisely takes advantage of Old World locations and era-specific clothing for ambience. It’s not a lived-in-looking period movie, but it’s a postcard-handsome one. The cars do their part, unless they’re in motion, at which point Moresco’s depiction of the thrill of speed — as necessary for these types of movies as anything else — leaves something to be desired.
Being careful not to mar the production’s most valuable props was maybe one consideration. It doesn’t, however, explain the lack of fuel injection with everything else in “Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend.”
“Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend” opens in US theaters and on-demand Nov. 18 via Lionsgate.