It’s 1953 and Lucille Ball after years of thankless roles at RKO playing second and third fiddle to people like Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Eve Arden (see 1937’s delightful “Stage Door”), has finally proved her brilliance as both a businesswoman and a comedienne with the formation of Desilu Productions (enter hubby Desi Arnaz) and the phenomenal success of her television series “I Love Lucy” which ran on CBS from 1951 to 1956. In the show she played Lucy Ricardo, a middle-class stay-at-home spouse living in New York City who is constantly making clandestine plans with best friends Ethel and Fred Mertz (Vivian Vance and William Frawley) to appear alongside her bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo (Arnaz), in his nightclub.
Sorkin sets his story during a particularly turbulent week when Lucy has to: 1) Show the suits at CBS whose boss. She is pregnant with her second child and, in 1953 a pregnant woman could not be shown on television – Sorkin in his original screenplay takes some liberties with the facts moving her pregnancy forward in time by almost a year; 2) coping with Desi’s numerous infidelities, even though they make out at every conceivable opportunity and 3) the most serious, columnist Walter Winchell impending announcement that she is a card-carrying Communist.
Nicole Kidman, who was a last-minute replacement for Cate Blanchett, gives Lucy her best shot. She tries. Unfortunately, you can feel the effort. That blazing red hair, the attempt at some of Lucy’s mannerisms during a slapstick routine, her spunk in the face of of adversity; all are underwhelming. Like her Virginia Woolf in “The Hours”, she’s more impressive for having the gumption to play such a famous person that actually inhabiting the character. But at least she’s game. Game enough for an almost certain Oscar nomination. As Desi, Javier Bardem is so laidback he appears to be slumming it and, although playing the straight man is never easy, he’s never convincing as Desi. Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons are more successful in their few moments as Vance and Frawley. Their scenes brighten up the movie and when they are not on screen, they are sorely missed.
The gap between Sorkin the master screenwriter and Sorkin the movie director who is still finding his feet widens as the film proceeds, leading to variations in tone. There is one scene, in particular, where the cast are doing a run through before the show. As Lucy instructs a hack director on the finer points of comedy, Sorkin’s natural tendency to be didactic and pedantic comes to the fore and you begin to feel that here is someone with no sense of humor trying to be funny – he could be Stanley Kramer’s heir apparent.
As for Lucy’s politics, Sorkin just brushes the surface. Yes, in 1936, she registered to vote as a Communist Party member. In the movie she says that she ticked the box just to please her socialist grandfather. Several of her family members did the same thing. That’s about as deep as we get. In the late forties she was an ardent opponent of the HUAC and, following the events portrayed in this movie, she had her own grueling day court. In secret, of course, because by then she was too powerful for them to touch her.
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