(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