It is impossible to tell the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz without also telling the story of the American Dream and its detriment to romantic relationships. But in Lucy and Desi, the business side of things is the only side of the story revealed to the audience. Theirs is a rags-to-riches love story, to be sure, but director Amy Poehler neglects the “love” aspect of the story in favor of the “rags to riches” part. Lucy and Desi doesn’t dig much deeper for information, personal or otherwise, outside of what I Love Lucy fans already know. Instead of unearthing new details on the lives of TV’s First Family, or putting her own fresh spin on the details that have already been widely available for decades, Poehler opts for a surface-level documentary with very little personality compared to its subject.
Lucy and Desi have a love story straight out of a Hollywood fairy tale—love at first sight, and on the set of a film they were starring in together, no less. The rest is television history. Their widely beloved sitcom I Love Lucy went on to garner more views than the inauguration of the U.S. president and the coronation of the queen. The show also invented the method of filming in front of a live studio audience, as well as the rerun model still used today. They founded Desilu Productions together, the top television production company until it was sold in 1968. It’s an understatement to say that their chemistry on and off-screen was euphoric, and I Love Lucy wouldn’t land the same without it.
I Love Lucy remains one of the funniest and most charming shows of all time due to Lucy and Desi’s clown/straight man dynamic. They really did build something beautiful together; it’s nothing short of a miracle that a protofeminist weekly story of a loudmouthed, goofy housewife and her classy Cuban man got made in the early 1950s, let alone that it was one of the most popular cultural products of the time. The show still holds up today because of their combined hard work: Him, the producer who knew how to let hardworking people do their jobs right, and her the vaudeville clown who studied how to get a laugh for her entire life.
Sadly, as is the case with many Hollywood fairy tales, Lucy and Desi’s story turns sour after the fame and success wasn’t enough, but the film stops short of getting into the nitty-gritty of why their relationship fell apart. The film glosses over Desi’s frequent public infidelities, barely mentioning them at all. Before the birth of I Love Lucy, all the audience is told is that Desi was away for several years for work; cheating is a pretty essential detail when telling the story of a couple’s demise. Beyond overwork and arguing on vacation, the film doesn’t delve too far into why Lucy and Desi couldn’t make it work, just as it doesn’t go into the sweeter part of their love story.
Just as the film doesn’t sink its teeth into Lucy and Desi’s personal lives, it also doesn’t ask any questions about the mainstream narrative of the second Red Scare wave, which swept Lucy into its tide in 1953 when she voluntarily testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee that she was only registered in the 1930s as a Communist for her grandfather’s sake. The film’s incurious approach discounts any possibility that Lucy’s political beliefs could transgress away from hardline capitalism. I’m not saying that Lucy was definitely a communist, but so what if she were? Maybe what Desi famously said is true, and there’s “nothing red about Lucy except her hair.” But would being a communist make her any less of a dynamite performer? For a 2022 film, Lucy and Desi unquestioningly adheres to outdated 1950s McCarthyism; then again, an Amazon production has little incentive to question these narratives.
Lucille Ball has to be a capitalist—otherwise the film’s girlboss narrative falls apart—because the most girlboss thing a woman can do is acquire as much wealth as possible, even if that means working herself into the ground on reboots that call back to people’s nostalgia for a better time (see: The Lucy Show). Poehler’s film hits the same notes that we’ve heard before without presenting new information, exploring new territory or asking any new questions. One would get a lot more out of rewatching I Love Lucy reruns and doing one’s own YouTube deep dive.
Director: Amy Poehler
Writer: Mark Monroe
Release Date: March 4, 2022 (Amazon)
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.