Glorious fairytales of hardship: Peacemaker; tick, tick…BOOM!; and Being the Ricardos

I spent this afternoon with John Cena. It was heaven. HBOMax’s Peacemaker is brilliant. A dash of Netflix’s Cobra Kai, a smidge of Fox’s Deadpool, some of Amazon’s The Boys, and even a little of HBO’s Watchmen. (That last reference comes full circle as Watchmen’s “The Comedian” was a riff on the original comic book “Peacemaker.”)

The show is bonkers, irreverent, subversive, and more than a bit poignant. Yes, Peacemaker is a study in male arrested development and will appeal to the naughty and vulgar 8th grader in all of us.

But Cena also conveys a tragic sadness amidst the rampant silliness, a beefy Willy Loman in spandex. And the smart ensemble trapped in an unceasing series of Rube Goldberg-esque dead-ends owes as much to The Iceman Cometh as it does to the X-Men.

See? Not all of my references are comic book-oriented.

Danielle Brooks as a comically green field agent (who might not be as inept as she telegraphs), Jennifer Holland as her more seasoned (read: wryly, candidly cynical) colleague, and Freddie Stroma as adorably homicidal and overeager wannabe sidekick Adrian Chase (aka “Vigilante”) are standouts.

Showrunner James Gunn takes the merry melody he began in last year’s The Suicide Squad and turns it into a symphony. Whereas that film occasionally was mired in its own fan service, Peacemaker builds upon its predecessor’s promise and avails itself of the expanded real estate serial television provides to develop its characters without sacrificing any gee whiz puerile shenanigans.

And watching The Suicide Squad is not a prerequisite. There is a brief recap in the first episode, and, in many ways, Peacemaker is the far stronger production. I almost wish I HADN’T seen The Suicide Squad first (which nonetheless I did enjoy).

Even if you loathe superheroes – or ESPECIALLY if you do – you’ll find it endlessly entertaining.

A week or so ago, I caught up with Netflix’s tick, tick…BOOM! and Amazon’s Being the Ricardos, which also could be dubbed the “late bloomers double feature” (not just because I saw them well after their respective premieres). Both films explore the challenging intersection of art and commerce, a limbo often riddled with casualties who *just* haven’t quite made it yet but keep hitting that show biz gaming table for one last hopeful spin.

tick, tick…BOOM! is the autobiographical musical by the late Jonathan Larson, Pulitzer Prize-winner for Rent. Detailing his 30th year of living, the piece reads like a Gen X bohemian Company with its protagonist bouncing from well-meaning friend to less-well-meaning friend on a journey to find himself and a backer for his long-gestating musical (no, not Rent … yet).

Director Lin Manuel-Miranda displays a sure hand with the material, fueled no doubt both by love and respect for his contemporary Larson but also from his own career’s stops and starts.

The film is a glorious fairytale of hardship, and its leading man Andrew Garfield (always a marvel) turns in a career best performance, deftly walking a high wire of being inspiring, endearing, maddening, and self-serving. Oh, and he sings (gorgeously), plays the piano, and (sort of) dances, all while painting one of the clearest-eyed portrayals of the white hot isolation of a creative spirit I’ve ever seen.

Supporting players Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, MJ Rodriguez, Judith Light, and Bradley Whitford (as Stephen Sondheim no less!) are all stellar, sharply capturing the earnest if ephemeral nature of relationships in the theatre community. There are Broadway cameos aplenty, and I won’t spoil the fun, but I will give shout outs to Laura Benanti (always a comic delight) and Judy Kuhn who are positively larcenous in their all-too-brief respective scenes.

Comparably, Being the Ricardos is shaped by the endless, thankless years performers toil in an effort to “make it.” While the film focuses on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the peak of I Love Lucy’s fame, we learn, through flashbacks and writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s signature rat-a-tat dialogue, the steep challenges through which this legendary couple powered to achieve blockbuster success relatively late in their respective careers.

The film clarifies without belaboring that Lucy and Desi’s success came with a steep price. Years of working in obscurity created hairline fractures that would eventually blossom into infidelity, but throughout they remained a united front in art and business.

Notably, while Kidman doesn’t look one whit like Ball, she does nail Lucy’s husky smoker’s voice and overall demeanor. We leave the film with incredible admiration for Lucille Ball as an entrepreneur who transformed the industry, as a comic visionary with an artiste’s obsession for detail, and as a social progressive who beautifully didn’t give a damn for mid-century social norms.

Kidman and luminous Javier Bardem (as Desi) conduct an acting master class in how to portray beloved historical figures, channeling their essences, while making them uniquely their own. Consequently, they land a timely and timeless message of living in one’s moment.

They are aided and abetted by JK Simmons and Nina Arianda as William Frawley and Vivian Vance respectively. Despite Arianda being saddled with an unfortunate body shaming subplot, both Arianda and Simmons sparkle brilliantly as showbiz workhorses who simultaneously value and resent their “second banana” success.

And, for those who geek out over sumptuous scenic and costume design, there is lush Eisenhower-era eye candy aplenty, with one postcard-perfect image after another of Hollywood’s (and television’s) golden age.

The film’s politics get slippy at times. Sorkin seems intent on force-fitting a modern liberal’s gaze onto Lucy and Desi’s history, but tricky details like Richard Nixon exonerating Lucy from her communist party past get in the way. Be that as it may, the performances transcend any pedantry to detail lives fully lived in service to art and cultural progress.

4 thoughts on “Glorious fairytales of hardship: Peacemaker; tick, tick…BOOM!; and Being the Ricardos

  1. you’ve been busy! sounds like so much action/adventure/drama packed into a short time, i’m surprised you had time to write about it all. each sounds good in its own way, and i’ll have to work my way through -)

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