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

Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?