December 19, 2021 – This biographical comedy-drama cleverly combines several historical events into one story, compressed and rearranged into a single week of events. The story is fleshed out with related flashback scenes, depicting the famous show business couple, Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz, the stars of TV's “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957).
First, the movie lets us in on the fact that this was one of the most popular TV shows in history. It is still being shown, over six decades after the series ended. Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on the show. The movie also depicts Lucile and Desi as a couple with long-running problems in their marriage and that Lucile hoped the TV show would save their marriage. It didn't, but it may have prolonged it, and may have led to the birth of their second child.
This movie is centered around the 1953 announcement of Lucile's pregnancy, combined with the sensational news story of her being denounced as a communist. As if that isn't enough, news articles about Desi's infidelity to Lucile happen at the same time. In the movie these all occur in the same week, which seems like overkill. In real life, these events happened months or years apart.
Lucile Ball (played by Nicole Kidman of “Bombshell”) and Desi Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem of “Skyfall”) are the stars of “I Love Lucy” as well heading up their own production company, Desilu Studios. They are very successful, but their relationship is stormy, since Desi is a drinker and womanizer with a violent temper.
These problems spill over onto the set during rehearsals with their co-stars Vivian Vance (played by Nina Arianda of “Midnight in Paris”) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons of “Whiplash”) who play Ethel and Fred Mertz, main characters on the show. There is tension on the set because Lucile is not happy with the script, or the direction, trusting her own comic instincts over that of her writers, or her “hack” director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham).
Lucile and Desi decide they want to work her pregnancy into the show's script, and the network resists. This argument is one of the dramatic tent posts of the film, and it is finally settled in a dramatic and funny climax.
Another big dramatic tent post is the allegation that Lucile is a communist, which is related to the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into communist sympathizers in Hollywood. She was called to testify twice before the committee. If the charge had stuck, it might have ended her career. This too, was finally resolved in a very dramatic scene in the film. This scene is immediately followed by another dramatic climax, a confrontation of Desi by Lucile over his infidelity.
All three of these big dramatic confrontations happen near the end of the film, one right after the other. The first two, the climax of the pregnancy crisis and the communist allegation crisis are handled in spectacular fashion by writer-director Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) while the last one, the infidelity crisis, is a deflating letdown.
This final crisis is the conclusion of a sad war between two people who are so worn down from years of fighting they finally abandon all pretenses propping up their failing marriage. There are clear and satisfying victories in the first two crises. The last confrontation is just sad.
The acting by the four main characters who play Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel on the “I Love Lucy” show is superb. I think Nina Arianda, who gives a great performance, looks just like Vivian Vance (Ethel) while the deadpan humor of J.K. Simmons, playing William Frawley (Fred) is spot on. Bardem not only excels in the dramatic scenes, but he does his own singing in musical scenes as Arnaz, the touring Cuban band leader. Kidman is very convincing as the funny, talented, driven, tortured TV star.
Even though parts of this movie are fictionalized (see the articles about its historical inaccuracies at historyvshollywood.com, slate.com and thrillist.com) it is very effective. The dialog is smart and witty, and those two big climaxes are stunning, even though neither of them happened the way they are depicted. Even so, most of the events depicted in this film are based on historical facts, with one big exception. Sorkin has rearranged those facts and timelines to create very effective, dramatic scenes.
In doing my research for this article, I was surprised to find out that Nicole Kidman was born in the United States and spent the first four years of her life in the U.S. I always thought of her as an Aussie, and she is, but she is also an American, born in the U.S.A., like the Boss sang. I also learned a lot about Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz, and the rest of the I Love Lucy gang.
To some of you, I know, this is all ancient history, but I grew with this show. To me, and many of my fellow Baby Boomers, this was a significant part of our childhoods. This movie shows there was a lot more drama behind the scenes of this show than we knew about at the time. Some of the issues depicted, like nativism and white supremacy, are still around, and still causing problems for a lot of people.
Sorkin is definitely a member of the “more is better than enough” school of screenwriting with his complex, overly busy story. Even while rewriting history to manufacture his over-the-top triple climax landing, he somehow manages to make it all work, with the aid of his talented cast (casting credits: Kathy Driscoll and Francine Maisler). This film rates an A.
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