3.5 readers! I’m home!
BQB here with a review of Amazon’s Lucille Ball biopic.
Reviews of this film haven’t been great and all I can say is this: whether you like this film or not will depend on what you were hoping for when you turned it on.
If you were looking for laughs, you’ll be sorely disappointed, which is strange, given that it is a film about the life and times of the 1950’s Hollywood power couple that invented the sitcom. All the funny half hour shows you know and love have Mr. and Mrs. Ricardo to thank for convincing the network suits that Americans love to laugh, not just once but over and over again in perpetual re-run syndication.
If you were looking for scandalous backstage power plays and intrigue, you’ve come to the right place. I have to admit, when I first heard about this movie, I wondered if Aaron Sorkin was the right man for the job. He gave us The West Wing and is best known for political drama, his calling card being characters who walk and talk while giving exposition dumps (and sometimes those dumps are so long they end up doing a lot of walking…is it me or have these characters covered enough ground to make a football field?)
Sure enough, the walk and talk happens here and Sorkin fans might chuckle as we see Nicole Kidman’s Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem’s Desi Arnaz walk and talk across studio backlots while they discuss the latest doings with the various cast and crew members who made “I Love Lucy” the powerhouse it was (and in many ways, still is.)
The film allows us to be a fly on the wall during a rough week for the Ricardos (technically, shouldn’t this be called being the Arnazes? Being the Ball-Arnazes?) With all the turmoil and infighting, it is a wonder that any show makes it to the TV screen, and given the number of obstacles in Lucy and Desi’s path, it’s a wonder they had the careers that they did.
Lucy faces false commie charges, having registered for a worker’s political party in her 20s just to please her labor loving grampa who raised her, unaware the act would be used some 20 something years later to lob accusations of being a Bolshevik loving Trotskyite. Desi, who fled Cuba to escape the Castro regime, the violence of which he saw up close and personal, publicly defends his wife though in private, informs her that she did indeed “check the wrong box.”
The accusation threatens to derail the show and put Lucy and Desi on the unemployment line (ahh, the type of political intrigue that Sorkin loves). Meanwhile, Lucy has to deal with Desi’s wandering penis (the press is also lobbying charges of Desi’s infidelity, which he strongly denies but, well, if you’re familiar with the story then you know the score.)
As if that weren’t enough, Lucy has to fight Hollywood suits who don’t want her pregnant on TV because damn it, talking about pregnancy is admission that the pregnant woman had sex and you can’t talk about sex in any way shape or form on 1950s TV. (In retrospect, one wonders how we went from Lucy and Ricky sleeping in separate beds in the 1950s to the Sex and the City girls humping their way through Manhattan with no detail spared in the 1990s.) See that? If Lucy and Desi hadn’t convinced the suits that the world wouldn’t end if a pregnant woman appeared on TV, then you wouldn’t have all these shows where characters bang a new person every week with zero consequences and…well…I’m not sure that’s even what L and D wanted but moving on…
Did I mention Lucy and Desi were the first interracial couple on TV? Somehow, Lucy must navigate the choppy waters of telling off suits who don’t want to see a Hispanic man married to a white woman on television. Meanwhile, Desi comes from a Cuban culture where, as the film tells us, “the man is the man” and thus it can be hard for Desi to play second fiddle to his wife, who goes out of her way to make sure everyone knows that Desi is indeed, a first fiddle, especially when it comes to making all the business decisions of the Desi-Lu empire.
Side intrigue comes from staff writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) trying to make her way in a boys’ club, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance (Ethel on the Lucy show) fighting storylines/jokes on the show about how Ethel is pretty enough/worthy of being elderly Fred’s wife (J.K. Simmons excels as Fred actor William Frawley who imparts words of wisdom to Lucy during rare moments of sobriety.)
My main criticisms? The show brings a lot of modern wokeness and I’m not sure how much of it actually happened or how much of it is Sorkin wishing it had happened. Lucy and Desi’s fights to keep an interracial couple on TV while one half of the couple is pregnant are well known, whereas, for example, was there a lot of handwringing about whether or not the Lucy character should be stronger and less infantile? (I’m no Lucy historian but there probably was). (In the show’s defense, it did explore the ins and outs of so-called traditional gender roles in an episode where Lucy and Ethel go to work only to freak out on a chocolate candy production line that moves too fast while Desi and Fred nearly drown in a soap sud tsunami created by their incompetent dish washing…this might have been mentioned in the film…and I suppose in some ways, the old “they did the best that the 1950s would allow” comes up again and again.
STATUS: Shelf worthy. Nicole Kidman in prosthetics is virtually unrecognizable. She does a raspy voice, typical of Lucy impersonations though she didn’t really get that smoker’s rasp until she was older and the smoking caught up with her. Then again I could be wrong. As I said, I’m not a Lucy historian. Bardem lays the accent on a little thick and though Desi had a thick accent (jokes about Lucy not understanding what Ricky was saying were a constant show staple) I’m not sure it was as thick as Bardem played it.
A good film but ultimately, if you wanted laughs, you’ll be disappointed. If you want to see the strife that ensues when an interracial power couple fights against a Hollywood machine in a time that didn’t want them and achieve a series of TV firsts, this is your movie.
One final criticism – the movie does these side interviews where older versions of the crew come out and pretend like they are being interviewed. This surprised me as the documentary style interviews struck me as real and genuine, yet in my mind, I kept asking, wouldn’t all these people be dead by now? True enough, I looked it up and the interviews with older versions of crew members were acted out by older actors/actresses. In other words, I spent all of last night thinking that Madelyn Pugh went on to appear in Alice’s Diner in the 1980s and looks fabulous even though she must be like 100 years old only to realize it was Linda Lavin of Alice’s Diner playing an older version of Pugh. I’m just not sure the interviews make sense given that…well I’m not sure if anyone involved in I Love Lucy is still alive today but if they are, they have to be pushing 100 or more. I take that back. Desi and Lucy Arnaz (the kids of the marriage) are still kicking though up their in years in their own right…and maybe if there was a kid backstage selling newspapers or shining shoes or something they’d still be alive but old but that’s about it.
I thought it was entertaining enough, but that’s because I enjoyed watching the character portrayals and I always enjoy Aaron Sorkin’s writing. As far as the story was concerned I thought it was a little dull.
It felt a little bit like Ricky and Lucy visit the West Wing