Greetings again from the darkness. You don’t have to be one of the 60 million who, between 1951 and 1957, tuned in each week to watch the latest episode of “I Love Lucy” to feel like you know Lucy, Desi, Ethel, and Fred. Most of us have watched the syndicate re-runs over the past 70 years, and that fact added challenges to this project for writer-director Aaron Sorkin – not the least of which was casting the role of Lucille Ball. Everyone had an opinion, and when you go to cast a true icon, it’s a slippery slope.
I’m happy to report (even though it’s not surprising) that Oscar winner Nicole Kidman is truly exceptional as Lucy. Perhaps a better choice could be made if this were a remake of the “I Love Lucy” sitcom, but although the film dips in and out of that show’s production, this is an Aaron Sorkin movie; so the focus is less on comedy and more on the intricacies of social and political issues. Now you might ask, what issues could a beloved star like Lucy have? How about these: the media is reporting her husband is cheating on her, the sponsors don’t want her appearing on air while pregnant, internal battles over a particular scene with the director and writers, and she’s just been publicly called out for being a communist.
You’ve surely detected by now that this is no comedy about Lucy. Instead, it’s a pretty heavy drama about pressures at the top of a profession, and the eternal difficulties in cultivating a successful marriage. Adding heft is the era in which this occurs. It was rare for a woman to wield Lucy’s power, and the social mores of the time forced big time debate over showing a woman during pregnancy – even if that woman was married! Filmmaker Sorkin utilizes an odd structure for the film. It appears to be happening during the show’s second season, but we are actually looking back years later through the eyes of the show’s writers and producer. And then beyond that, we get flashbacks from the flashbacks to Lucy’s time at RKO, and the early flirtations that led to Lucy and Desi.
Oscar winner Javier Bardem plays Desi Arnaz. Although he bears little physical resemblance to the Cuban bandleader, Bardem expertly captures the essence of Desi as a businessman, actor, musician, lover of Lucy, and lover of life. For me, it was as thrilling to watch Desi’s shrewd negotiations with the network and Philip Morris executives as his energized bongos while performing “Babalu” at Ciro’s. Sorkin makes it clear that both Lucy and Desi were brilliant at what they did. Together they formed Desilu Productions, and he handled much of the business side, while her perfectionism and comedy instincts pushed the show to limits never before reached.
But what would the Ricardos be without their neighbors, landlords, and friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz? Nina Arianda (a Tony winner) plays Ethel/Vivian Vance, while Oscar winner JK Simmons plays Fred/William Frawley. The set is not the warm and fuzzy cocoon one might imagine. Vivian’s well known frustration was with Lucy mandating Ethel’s frumpy and dowdy look, while it’s clear Vivian and Frawley’s bickering carried on after the lights dimmed … due in no small part to Frawley’s alcoholic ways. That said, Ms. Arianda is terrific in the role, and Mr. Simmons epitomizes the grumpy old man we know as Fred.
Due to the flash-forward recollections, we get Tony Hale and John Rubinstein as the younger and older producer Jess Oppenheimer, Jake Lacy and Ronny Cox as the younger and older writer Bob Carroll, while Alia Shawkat and Linda Lavin play the two versions of writer Madelyn Pugh. It’s Ms. Lavin who describes Lucy and Desi’s relationship as, they were either “tearing each other’s heads off, or tearing each other’s clothes off.” It’s debatable whether Sorkin’s choice to structure the multiple time lines adds to the film’s depth, but it does allow for more talking … something Sorkin never shies away from. This is his third directorial effort after MOLLY’S GAME (2017) and THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), and he won his Oscar for the adapted screenplay of THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).
Despite all the other aspects, this is the story of Lucy in crisis mode. She is pregnant with the child of a husband who is likely cheating on her. Her show and company are in jeopardy, and because of something she did many years ago, her status as a beloved American icon could be lost. Her show transcended all other forms of entertainment at the time and was must-watch TV when not every home had a TV (much less 3 or 4). The film mostly covers one week in time, though Sorkin does give us a look back at a time when the industry simply didn’t know what to do with her talent. For the fans, we do get a mention of Vitameatavegin, and a wonderful recreation of the infamous stomping of grapes. It’s a delight to see such fine actors fully engaged in roles they know will be picked apart by many. This is not the Lucy movie we would typically expect, but it’s one that pays tribute to the real person and real people and what they accomplished.
In theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Amazon Prime beginning December 21, 2021