Review: Directed by Amy Poehler, Lucy and Desi Explores the Personal and Working Relationship of the Famous Couple

From director Amy Poehler comes the meticulously researched Lucy and Desi, which explores not only the work of the well-known married comedy team of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but also dives deep into their working relationship, often tumultuous but also frequently produced landmark television. The couple’s work together may have first bore fruit with the “I Love Lucy” sitcom, but thanks to their Desilu Productions company, they gave us countless other series (such as “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables,” and “Mission: Impossible”). The creative partnership and friendship lasted long past their marriage, and thanks to interviews with friends and family members, the film provides a deeper understanding of their shared personal and working lives.

Primarily pulled together from ample archival footage of Lucy’s early (mostly supporting) film roles and Desi’s life as a traveling musician, Lucy and Desi makes it clear that both of these artists came up and succeeded because of their relentless work ethic and fearless pursuit of their place in show business. Ball did not start out in comedy, but when she had great success on a comedic radio show, it was only a matter of time before television came calling looking for new material to put on the relatively new format. Ball was desperately in love with her new husband Arnaz, but rarely saw him because their schedules never lined up. Figuring the only way to see him was to work together, she made the first of many groundbreaking decisions to have the Cuban-born Arnaz play her husband on “I Love Lucy.”

One perhaps inadvertent thing the documentary did for me was make me appreciate the recent Being the Ricardos a bit more, especially Nicole Kidman’s performance. It also helps put into perspective the way writer/director Aaron Sorkin captures the behind-the-scenes chaos of an average work week on the show and the way Lucy and Desi established clear roles on the show, with him handling the business end of things while she handled perfecting the comedy and working with the writers until everything came together. Much like Sorkin’s film, the doc covers Ball getting caught up in the Red Scare, how the show handled her midseason pregnancy, and coming up with some of the show’s classic routines.

With terrific interviews with children Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and (to a lesser degree) Desi Arnaz Jr., the film also dives more into Arnaz’s tumultuous exit from Cuba when the revolution there started, making it clear that he was no immigrant; he was a refugee, effectively being forced out since his family were powerful people in government before the communists took over. As a result, his devotion and appreciation to the United States showed in everything he did. Ball’s achievements later in life included mentoring up-and-coming female comics such as Carol Burnett, Bette Midler (both interviewed) and Joan Rivers. The interviews with Lucy and Desi are largely taken from talk shows they did later in life, reflecting on the work they did together.

After their divorce, both Lucy and Desi remarried other people and were actually coupled with their new spouses longer than they were together. But they remained friends and (quite successful) business partners until he died, only then leaving her the responsibility of running the studio for the first time. Needless to say, she sold the company to Paramount almost as soon as she could. Depending on how much you know about these icons going in, Lucy and Desi can be a truly eye-opening and deeply moving story of the kind of partnership that defies definitions. What they did best was work together and be in each others lives no matter the capacity. The film is like comfort food, especially when we simply get to see highlights of Ball working and clips from the many iterations of her series or guest appearances on other shows. On the surface, it may seem easy to get a film about this power couple right without too much effort (and that may be true), but director Poehler’s clear efforts to tell the story beyond the better-known funny moments pays off by giving audiences a well-rounded, beneath-the-surface vantage point from which to observe these remarkable stories.

The film is now streaming on Prime Video.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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