Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2021. Amazon Studios, Big Indie Pictures, Escape Artists. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth. Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch. Music by Daniel Pemberton. Production Design by Jon Hutman. Costume Design by Susan Lyall. Film Editing by Alan Baumgarten.
By the time its second season was on the air, I Love Lucy was a national phenomenon, pulling in sixty million viewers a week which, even though television was an exciting novelty in people’s homes, was still an incredible figure, and even more impressive for the leads who were pulling it off: Lucille Ball, a former film actress who never quite broke out as a huge star and was sent packing from RKO studios when she reached the ripe old age of 35, was rescued from radio performance hell by the series, and refused to agree to do it without her Cuban-born, World War II veteran and popular bandleader husband Desi Arnaz by her side. Both had practically given up hope of top-tier status before achieving this milestone success (relatively late for both), so is it any wonder that something would come along and try to take it away from them?
On a Sunday night when they are having yet another of their many volatile arguments over his perpetual infidelity, the Arnazes hear Walter Winchell label Lucy (played by a riveting Nicole Kidman) a Red on his radio program, not because of her hair but because many years earlier she checked the Communist Party box on a voter card. The announcement, should it be picked up by the newspapers, could easily topple her career in one blow and get I Love Lucy pulled from the air for good, which means the new work week beginning the next day will see her and Desi (Javier Bardem giving marvelous charisma) dealing with a very tense cast and crew. They’re worried about their futures but they are also nervous about what to expect from the star, who brings her usual professional verve in to the workplace but, despite already known for her careful perfectionism, seems to be pushing harder on the actors and writers than usual to get each beat of each sequence in this week’s episode right.
Although insisting that she’s not worried about the HUAC coming after her, the buzz of this threat hums all around Lucy as she spends the week fine-tuning comedy beats that she feels aren’t quite where they should be, fearless about facing down with a director she doesn’t respect (Don Glass played by Christopher Denham) and thinking nothing of calling up her co-stars in the middle of the night to come to the soundstage and keep rehearsing. As we go through this week with her, we flash back to key moments in the couple’s lives together, from their meeting on the set of Desi’s film debut, Too Many Girls, to the excitement of her breakthrough role in Irving Reis’s The Big Street and eventually, the big meeting with CBS in which Ball came in guns blazing and determined to do her show her way or not at all (“That’s When They Put the ‘S’ on the End of My Last Name,” she famously quipped).
The best thing about this film, and the element that more than makes up for the few narrative surprises that it contains, is that writer-director Aaron Sorkin is on board with Ball’s personality the whole way, neither condescending to a cheesy Girl Power celebration of her badassery or undercutting her unfiltered personality by telling us to feel sympathy for her rocky marriage or political troubles. Sure, those vulnerabilities are there, but we are given a sense that actually this is what she’s always like and it’s the best thing about her; for Sorkin, Lucille Ball’s harshness was her work ethic and there’s a reason why her show still stands up among the best comedy sitcoms (she herself always said she didn’t consider herself a funny person, but that she knew how to perform comedy).
Naturally, we don’t just want the behind the scenes stuff even if it is this juicy, including Ball’s confrontations with on-screen and real-life friend Vivian Vance (a mesmerizing Nina Arianda), we also want to see recreations of the actual show, which Sorkin provides plenty of, including the famous grape-crushing scene and moments from the episode being worked on as it gets ready for a very dramatic live taping, when Lucy must step out in front of a studio audience who were just served headlines about her UnAmerican past. The actors in this film have quite the weight on their shoulders to do justice to something that is still so beloved and familiar to audiences, but there are no complaints to be made in that regard: Kidman nails Ball’s performance voice, when playing Lucy Ricardo it’s almost uncanny how much she sounds like her (and it compensates for how much she doesn’t look like her, Kidman’s guarded, small eyes are no match for Ball’s large pools that were always vulnerable and intimidating at the same time).
The only superfluous note here is the addition of talking head interviews by actors playing key members of the crew in their later years (including Linda Lavin as script writer Madelyn Pugh, who is played younger by Alia Shawkat): it suggests that Sorkin had more information to include in his script than he could find ways to dramatize and decided to put them into these extra bits, not realizing that he already had a narrative bursting at the seams and didn’t need the commentary, particularly as it does not help contextualize the dramatic scenes or dare us to doubt them in any way.
This is little complaint, however, as the journey we go on with the two stars is a rich and rewarding one, Kidman is a Ball of blazing fire in every scene and Bardem keeps pace with her beautifully, capturing the mercurial air of Arnaz that made him so irresistible to so many (to too many, by all reports) and so frustrating to the woman who loved him. For fans of television comedy, Ball and Arnaz remain king and queen of the industry and she is, for many, the greatest performer ever to have appeared on screen; this is a fitting tribute to the hard work that went into making them great, and a loving portrait of a powerful and famously difficult relationship.
Golden Globe Award: Best Actress-Drama (Nicole Kidman)
Nominations: Best Actor-Drama (Javier Bardem); Best Screenplay
Screen Actors Guild Award Nominations: Best Actor (Javier Bardem); Best Actress (Nicole Kidman)