'Lucy and Desi' review: Between laughs, you'll blink back tears

You’ve never seen Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz like this.

February 25, 2022, 4:40 AM

Fresh from its smash debut at the Sundance Film Festival, "Lucy and Desi" hits Amazon Prime with a whole new audience to enthrall. Ever since "I Love Lucy" ended its initial run from 1951 to 1957, the classic sitcom has been playing or streaming somewhere in the world. But you've never seen its stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz like this.

While Aaron Sorkin made a sharp media satire out of the successful partnership and failed marriage of Ball and Arnaz in "Being the Ricardos," director Amy Poehler artfully uses the documentary form to create an emotional roadmap into the late couple's highs and lows.

Using home movies, interviews with family and friends, and the voices of Ball and Arnaz themselves, Poehler builds a deeply moving love story between two television icons who only came close to true happiness when they were faking it on camera.

PHOTO: Lucille Ball is shown with her husband Desi Arnaz, circa. 1953.
Lucille Ball is shown with her husband Desi Arnaz, circa. 1953.
FPG via Getty Images

On the tube, Lucy and Ricky always worked things out. Things were thornier and more complicated for the real-life Lucille and Desi. Though Poehler admired the talents of both performers, she had no interest in making a gushy tribute film. Keeping it real is her goal.

And she succeeds triumphantly with the help of legends who knew them, including Carol Burnett, Bette Midler and Norman Lear, and the duo's daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, whose acute portrait of her parents through thick and thin has the bittersweet ring of truth.

In "Being the Ricardos, starring Oscar nominees Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, writer director Sorkin condensed both their lives into one tumultuous week on the set of "I Love Lucy." Poehler's cradle-to-the-grave approach takes us deeper into their professional and personal relationship until we learn to know them above all as human beings.

Ball's struggles growing up in Jamestown, New York, are contrasted to the privileged life of Arnaz in Cuba, with his family link to the Bacardi rum fortune, an existence torn apart in 1933 by the Cuban revolution. Arnaz barely spoke English when he hit Hollywood, and developed his skills as a conga-playing musician and bandleader.

PHOTO: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on set.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on set.
Amazon Studios

It wasn't until the 1940s that he fell for the hard-edged Ball and a decade later that they developed "I Love Lucy" into a runaway success despite executive objections to redheaded, all-American Lucy hooking up with an immigrant person of color on and off the screen.

Ball and Arnaz sparked a cultural revolution. He as a skilled producer and innovator. She as a laugh-getter whose comic gifts were anything but effortless as she worked tirelessly to achieve technical perfection. The weakest part of "Being the Ricardos" comes when Kidman and Bardem strain to match the Ball-Arnaz performing magic. Here, clips of the real thing say it all.

More crucially, Poehler shows us the love that endured between the two even after his infidelities led to a split and they both wed others. There's no telling how much Poehler, whose marriage to and divorce from comic actor Will Arnett—they costarred as husband and wife on "Arrested Development"—related to the creative sparks and tensions between Ball and Arnaz. But you can feel it in the raw emotion she brings to the personal lives of these public figures.

It's hilarious and heartfelt when the couple's daughter Lucie vividly recreates the moment when her mother visits her ailing father and they giggle watching old episodes of the sitcom invented to save their marriage. In "Lucy and Desi," Poehler brings us whisper close to the flesh-and-blood reality behind the mask of fame. Between laughs you'll be blinking back tears.

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