Buster Keaton offers Lucille Ball a succinct explanation as to why her career never took off in the movies, even after she had done about 50 B pictures: “Louis B. never understood us clowns.” Success only blossomed for Lucille Ball, CBS’ three-hour “Lucy” informs us, when she embraced her value as a clown and played it to the hilt, a possibility afforded by television and a recurring character that doesn’t happen on the bigscreen. Other than that, though, “Lucy” treads water as it plods through oft-told chapters of the Desi-Lucy romance and business breakthroughs between 1940 and 1960. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron go after their biggest icon yet in an ongoing roll of biopics that includes Judy Garland and the Beach Boys, and they come up with a shallow re-creation of two people America swears it knows inside and out. “Lucy” doesn’t betray that love affair, but it adds little to the mix.
Theirs is an extraordinary story — unlikely couple struggles with love and family as they invent the TV business after becoming the vehicle’s biggest stars — yet the treatment is pure cliche. Like so many biopics, “Lucy’s” driving force is a flawed relationship, an inability to feel love that gets tacked onto so many life stories so as to force a catharsis. Also, it’s told in flashback, starting backstage at the finale of “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show” and traveling back to her youth outside Jamestown, N.Y.
Script from Katie Ford and T.S. Cook hits the biographical targets like moving ducks at the arcade shooting gallery. Ball’s father dies, her mother endorses her acting career, she’s told she has no talent and is tossed out of a Manhattan acting school, Chesterfield cigarettes makes Ball their poster girl and she ends up in Hollywood as a Goldwyn girl. “Lucy” catches its breath as Rachel York takes over from Madeline Zima in the Ball role, allowing the pic to move at a more graceful, if not engaging, pace.
Yet as Ball bounces from one B movie to another, mostly at RKO, there’s only a sense that she is a trooper, a good team player who lacks the ultimate star power of, say, her friend Carole Lombard (played with down-home charm by Vanessa Gray). It takes the advice of Keaton (Ian Mune) and Red Skelton (Mark Clare) to get her squared away as comic; love comes to her at first sight when she and Desi Arnaz (Danny Pino) exchange glances on the lot.
And just when the story should get good, it falters. Desi’s a drinker, a womanizer and eventually a heavy-duty gambler. Lucy is highly tolerant — almost to an inexplicable point — and never do we get the sense that Arnaz shaped her into the Lucy that America loved. “Lucy” touches on several well-known episodes — sets and costumes are consistently sharp and accurate; makeup, on the other hand, is off as none of the principals appear to age — and we watch Ball develop routines in front of the mirror, but never is there a sense of how William Frawley (Russell Newman), Vivian Vance (Rebecca Hobbs), Ball and Arnaz jelled under the guidance of Jess Oppenheimer (Lachland MacDonald) with scripts from Bob Carroll Jr. (Andrew Binns-Mitchell) and Madelyn Pugh (Theresa Healey). Behind-the-scenes trio is all silent smiles with goofy and even trite observations.
Ultimately, if director Glenn Jordan had elicited stirring perfs out of York and Pino, “Lucy” would be considerably more watchable. But they are so relegated to reprising what we’ve seen in reruns for so many years that it borders on caricature. Zadan-Meron have succeeded in the past by getting a commanding perf — Tammy Blanchard and Judy Davis as Judy Garland is still the standard — and there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Some of that owes to “Lucy” trying to encapsulate too much and not going deep enough during the years that matter.