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TV Review: 'Lucy' entertains but doesn't enlighten

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the time it takes to watch the three-hour CBS movie "Lucy," you could drive from Pittsburgh to Jamestown, N.Y., home of the Lucy-Desi Museum. You might find as much insight there as in this movie, which proves more entertaining than it has any right to be - but still superfluous in this celebrity-saturated age.

'Lucy'

When: 8 tonight on CBS.

Starring: Rachel York, Danny Pino.

It seems aimed at "I Love Lucy" fans who never watched any of the many documentaries celebrating the comedy's 50th anniversary in 2001 or of the long-ago love affair that proved as tempestuous and unlikely as it was doomed. The story ends in 1960, with no mention of Lucille Ball's subsequent series, movies, marriage to Gary Morton or her death in April 1989.

With reruns and videotapes of "I Love Lucy" readily available, do we really need to watch an actress re-create the grape-stomping scene? Even one who does it quite well, mimicking the glee and grin of the famous redhead?

With two oversize Lucy magnets (chocolate factory, Vitameatavegamin), a metal Lucy bank (showgirl buckling under heavy headdress) and ink pen depicting the gang from the "California, Here We Come" episode at my desk, I may not be the intended audience. Or maybe I am.

"Lucy" casts Rachel York in the title role and Danny Pino as Desi Arnaz. York, who recently completed the national tour of "Kiss Me, Kate," sports Ball's not-found-in-nature color of red hair, distinctive arched eyebrows and blue eyes that pop under false eyelashes.

Depending on the costumes and camera angles and distance, York can look enough like Ball to pass at times. At other moments, you're reminded just how different they are. Pino, who has a recurring role on "The Shield," is no Desi doppelganger, but he has perfected his accent and sound of his voice.

The movie opens in February 1960, with the final episode of "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour." Ball and Arnaz are at war, firing crude put-downs through a studio page at their dressing room doors, although their public civility prompts William Frawley to tell Vivian Vance, "God, it's worse than we thought."

The story then spins back to Ball's wild days outside Jamestown, N.Y., where the slender brunette teen (Madeline Zima) is dating a 25-year-old her family considers a hoodlum. Ball's mother sends her daughter to acting school in New York, where the homesick, lonely girl flunks out.

She later returns to the city, where she becomes a chorus girl and a blonde and is picked as one of the original 20 Goldwyn Girls. She moves to Hollywood, where she becomes smitten with Desi Arnaz, the son of an aristocratic family that left Cuba. Two months after meeting, they're married and hanging out with the likes of Clark Gable (talk about not looking like an icon) and Carole Lombard around the pool of their Desilu Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

"Lucy" then hits the apparent high and low points of their life together: RKO drops Arnaz's movie contract, Arnaz goes on the road with the Hollywood war bond caravan (Ball calls it a "rolling bordello"), Ball leaves RKO for MGM and a new hair color, Ball seeks a divorce and then reconciles, Ball realizes that she's a clown in the best sense of the word, and a groundbreaking TV show is born.

Some of the more famous "I Love Lucy" scenes are re-created or shown in rehearsal. They're mixed in with the arrival of the couple's two children, the family's move to Beverly Hills and hints or outright demonstrations of Arnaz's gambling, drinking, womanizing and temper. Arnaz comes across as immensely likable and talented - not enough is made of his pioneering production techniques and business savvy - but the one who sank this marriage.

The children, Lucie and Desi Jr., are cameo players in this drama, which is how it should be since they're still alive. Although Ball knew how to create a home, she wasn't known as the warmest of mothers, something that's kissed off in a line by Arnaz. When Ball objects to the time her husband spends on his boat by pointing out she has a baby at home, his quiet retort is: "Yeah, and you spend so much time with her."

Guess there's only room for one quasi-villain in this movie, and Desi's it.

Is "Lucy" a mea culpa for the 1991 CBS movie "Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter"? That made some lists of the 10 worst movies of the year, and one critic said it portrayed her as a "talentless shrew married to a second-rate Cisco Kid." Of course the CBS executive suites have probably changed occupants several times since, and it is the May sweeps, when ratings are more important than ever.

Many of the oft-told stories - Frawley's taste for drink, Ball's insistence that Vance carry a few extra pounds, the "red scare" when it became public that the apolitical Ball had registered as a Communist, at her beloved grandfather's request - are briefly referenced. And writers Katie Ford and T.S. Cook appear to tweak the timing of a miscarriage Ball suffered after years of being unhappily childless; they place it during a meeting about the future TV show, but Arnaz's autobiography makes no such connection.

At a time when books, movies and specials such as Lucie Arnaz's "Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie" (1993, NBC) are ubiquitous, such a TV movie seems unnecessary. Still, production designer Michael Ralph, hair and makeup supervisor Paul Pattison and costume designer Lesley Burkes-Harding do remarkable work in re-creating a time and many places, including the famous "Lucy" sets.

Even at three hours, it just seems to skim the surface of two complex lives that will be forever intertwined. If you're a fan, you may watch in frustration, demanding, "Tell me something or more things I don't know." You won't hate yourself for watching "Lucy," but you may yearn for the one-of-a-kind originals, resurrected in reruns nightly on cable.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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