Lucy & Desi
(USA, 103 min.)
Dir. Amy Poehler
Programme: Premieres (World Premiere)
There seems to be a sudden resurgence of interest in the life and work of Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz sixty-plus years after their television show helped define the medium during the 1950s. There’s no specific anniversary I’m aware of, or other kind of showcase of note, but between the Aaron Sorkin awards contender Being the Ricardos and SNL-alumna Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, Lucy & Desi, it seems that, at least for certain filmmakers, the lives of the famous redhead and her conga-playing cohort are fit for revisit.
A slight, at time saccharine overview of the career of these two individuals, Poehler’s project is perhaps notable for how unremarkable it really is. Set to be streamed on Amazon Prime a click away from Being the Ricardos, it could easily be lost in a sea of other middling biographic pieces. It, too, offers the usual cobbling together of archival footage, television clips, and interviews with a few people, ideally famous and well spoken. The two big gets here are Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, both of whom had professional and personal encounters with Lucy that they gush about.
The Arnaz children are also interviewed, although Desiderio, Jr. definitely gets the short end of the stick on that front. Lucie, Lucy and Desi’s daughter, sits poolside and waxes about her parents’ successes, early relationship, and their connection after their very public separation.
The chronological structure makes the film feel that much more banal, checking off the boxes of biography like a school assignment. There’s the life of Desi in Cuba, forced to leave and settling in Miami practically penniless. There’s the one time showgirl Lucy is spotted for her beauty and her ability to provide the modicum of talent required for studio B-pictures, only later to be mined for her comedic talents after appearing on a radio show. Brief comments from the likes of Normal Lear, whose own fascinating biopic, 2016’s Just Another Version of You, illustrates what this programme could have inspired to live up to, speak to the pioneering work that I Love Lucy represents.
Desi’s business acumen seen in the running of Desilu studios, and Lucy’s own charisma and talents, are in full flourish as story after story speaks of their success. Even when the inevitable split occurs, Lucy is championed as a feminist icon, taking on the running of a major production house and encouraging its eventual sale to Paramount.
So while their stories are indeed compelling, and the moments of historical import are well worth accounting for, it’s almost comical how dry, repetitive, and downright banal the result of this project is. Poehler’s effervescent charm and comedic talents are absent here. For the most part, this is a humourless tale of two funny people. Even delving into the other factors at play, be it Desi’s musical talents discussed by fellow musicians of the era, or even those detailing some of the nuts and bolts of his business acumen instead of generalist notions of him behind a desk running a mini empire, speaks to how superficial it all is.
The worst part of all is that the film does absolutely nothing to encourage new fans to explore the work of these two. The clips shown are the most obvious and over played, the comments so effusive that they almost dehumanise the subjects, making them at times feel two dimensional rather than real people. Sure, there’s a love story at the heart of this, but it’s one that clearly was coloured by living in the public eye. Some real moments of turmoil or personal drama are softened to the point of meaninglessness.
For a film meant to showcase unique talents, Lucy & Desi is so surprisingly ordinary that it makes a bore out of something that clearly had the expectations to be remarkable like its subjects. Poehler and her collaborators have generated a lifeless, simplistic, overly eager-to-please piece that does little more than come across as a tribute bordering upon eulogy. Given Poehler’s immense talent at both performing and writing, it’s a shock at how uninteresting the project ends up being. In an attempt to get out of the way and let the stars showcased shine, we instead are treated to mere fluff, a presentation that doesn’t live up to the talents of anyone major player involved.
Lucy & Desi premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.