Being the Ricardos


We all love Lucy.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, John Rubenstein, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Christopher Denham, Brian Howe, Ron Perkins, Baize Buzan, Matt Cook, Josh Bednarsky, Dana Lyn Baron, Dan Sachoff, Max Silvestri, Renee Pezzotta. Directed by Aaron Sorkin

 

They don’t get much more iconic than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the real-life husband and wife team that headed up I Love Lucy, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most popular sitcom of all time. At its height, the show could claim 60 million viewers each and every week – when the country’s total population was 160 million, meaning than one out of every two and a half Americans were watching it. Water usage went down when I Love Lucy was on, because people wouldn’t use the bathroom while the show was airing. The show was by every standard a phenomenon.

This new film by Aaron Sorkin charts one week during the show’s second season. The episode Fred and Ethel Fight is the one that was getting made that week and things start with the Monday table read, but the show is in an uproar and for good reason. Over the weekend, a pair of events have happened; syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell has accused Ball (Kidman) of being a card-carrying member of the Communist party, a serious career-killiing no-no in the era of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. A magazine article also shows Arnaz (Bardem), the Cuban émigré, out cavorting with someone who was definitely not Lucy.

With Lucy’s reputation at stake, and her marriage in trouble, it is the show that seems to be what keeps her going. A notorious perfectionist, Lucy endlessly tinkers with the script, much to the annoyance of director Donald Glass (Denham) and the amusement of co-stars William Frawley (Simmons) who played Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance (Arianda), who played his wife Ethel. Lucy agonizes endlessly over little physical bits of business, from her arranging flowers for the dinner table, to Desi walking up behind her and covering her eyes with a playful “Guess who?”

The film is meant to be a backstage glimpse of a power couple that have never really gotten their due as innovators, savvy business people and forward-thinking producers (Ball and Arnaz were early champions of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, both which ironically continue to be cash cow franchises for Paramount Studios, which owns the assets of Desliu (the production company that Desi and Lucy founded) today).

The movie follows a time-jumping path that can be confusing at times; there are semi-documentary interviews with the older versions of show runner Jess Oppenheimer (the younger version played by Hale), played by Rubenstein, producer Bob Carroll (Lacy) played by Cox and writer Madelyn Pugh (Shawkat) played by Lavin as an older woman.

We also see flashbacks to earlier points in the careers of both Arnaz and Ball, including their first meeting and eventual romance. The flashbacks do give a little context, but they tend to slow the film down somewhat and are at the end of the day, somewhat unnecessary. Still, Sorkin imbues the film with snappy dialogue (his trademark) and if he isn’t interested in giving us a real appreciation of the human beings that were Lucy and Desi, he does give us a real appreciation of their gifts as performers and behind-the-screen producers.

During this same week, Ball discovered she was pregnant which threw all sorts of consternation into the show; at the time, it was forbidden to even mention the word “pregnant” on the air – viewers of the show may recall the couple’s onscreen bedroom contained separate beds – and Lucy’s stubborn insistence that the pregnancy be written into the show, which despite overwhelming resistance from their sponsor (tobacco company Philip Morris) and the network, was eventually done, leading to some of the most memorable episodes in television history.

Kidman doesn’t particularly resemble Ball facially, but she captures her mannerisms and speech cadence nicely; Bardem is nothing like Arnaz but like Kidman does a good job of capturing the essence of the character. Simmons is memorable as Frawley, and Shawkat and Lacy have a playful relationship, while Shawkat and Kidman have a terrific scene as they discuss the difficulties in being a woman in the entertainment industry; they have improved some since then but not by much.

Kidman has already won the Golden Globe for her performance here and is virtually a shoo-in to be nominated for the Oscar when nominations for the 94th annual Academy Awards are announced on February 8th, 2022. The film is currently playing on Amazon Prime (link below) and may still be in some theaters near you, although to be honest this is a movie in my opinion best seen at home on TV, just like the sitcom was. You can also enjoy the episode that is depicted in the film is available on Hulu and Amazon (for Paramount Plus subscribers) and can be watched on the links therein.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman captures Ball’s speech and mannerisms nicely. Another terrific screenplay by Sorkin (surprise!).
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags some in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual content, adult themes, period smoking and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Linda Lavin plays the older Madelyn Pugh, who executive produced the TV sitcom Alice that starred Lavin – and in which Desi Arnaz appeared in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stan and Ollie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Diane

Away From Her


Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

(Lionsgate) Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Alberta Watson, Grace Lynn Kung, Stacey LaBerge. Directed by Sarah Polley.

One of the horrors of aging is Alzheimer’s disease. The effect of the disease on the afflicted person is devastating, but the effect on the loved ones can be even more harsh.

Grant Anderson (Pinsent) and his wife Fiona (Christie) have a good life. They’ve retired to a beautiful cabin in rural Ontario and live comfortably, surrounded by the accumulations of a long life together. However, there are some disturbing signs of change coming into their lives; Fiona is growing increasingly more forgetful, and has started to do some odd things, as when they are putting dishes away after a meal and she puts the frying pan into the freezer.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the practical Fiona has no desire to subject Grant to the agony of caring for her while she slowly and inevitably deteriorates. She makes the unilateral decision to check out a local nursing home. At first upset at his wife for acting on her own, he bows to her strong will and sensibility and drives her to the facility.

Once there, they find a pleasant environment with a caring staff but Grant balks when the facility’s director (Watson) informs him that he won’t be allowed to see his wife for 30 days while she adjusts to her new residence. He begs Fiona to reconsider, but she is firm and with a final sweet goodbye, sends him away. When he returns, the changes in her are pronounced. She’s developed a relationship with Aubrey (Murphy), a mute patient whom she cares for as a nurse for a patient. Whether the relationship is more than that isn’t clear; Grant wasn’t faithful to her early in their marriage and he wonders if she’s taking revenge for that. Some days she seems to recognize him, others it’s clear she has no clue who he is. Devastated, Grant takes advice from a sympathetic nurse (Thomson) and Aubrey’s wife (Dukakis), a practical, plain-spoken woman who sees the inevitable but can’t quite bring herself to let go.

Director Polley, best known as an actress in such films as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the “John Adams” miniseries as well as an impressive roster of indie movies, proves to be a director of enormous potential. She brings a deft touch to a subject matter that could easily become maudlin in less capable hands. Her gaze is unflinching and honest but never feels forced. The Andersons are robust and handsome in their age, but they aren’t archetypes; they’re real people with flaws and no clear direction of what to do. That’s a tribute to the original Alice Munro short story it was adapted from and also to Polley’s writing for which she was Oscar-nominated.

Most of the movie takes place in the winter, but Polley resists the temptation to make the film overcast and gloomy. Instead, nearly everything takes place in bright winter sunlight reflecting off the snow that sparkles like diamonds. The winter metaphor works for that reason without becoming cliché.

Christie and Pinsent are in every scene, either separately or together, and they both deliver outstanding performances. While Christie was recognized with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win, I found Pinsent’s performance more riveting as he captures the agony and desperation of a good man seeing the love of his life deteriorate before his eyes.

Despite the acclaim and Oscar buzz, this Canadian production didn’t receive widespread distribution here in the States. Nevertheless this is a movie worth seeking out not just for the subject matter, which may be off-putting for those with phobias about aging and the issues that the elderly face, but also for the on-screen performances which are as compelling as any you’ll see in a small film like this. You may also want to rent it if for no other reason, to mark the occasion of the emergence of a great director who is bound to release some wonderful movies as her career progresses.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by the entire cast, particularly the two leads. Beautiful snow-covered exteriors in rural Ontario. An impressive script that never stoops to emotional manipulation or maudlin clichés.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subject matter may be too age-centric for some. Some of the subplots are merely touched upon without satisfying resolutions.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for kids wondering why grandpa is so forgetful.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lionsgate paid $750,000 for the rights to distribute this film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing notable on the American release; however Canadian readers might look into the 2-Disc special edition for a short film from Polley entitled I Shout Love as well as additional film commentary from Christie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Strayed (Les Egares)