Being the Ricardos
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, Nina Arianda, J.K. Simmons
Writer/Director: Aaron Sorkin
In theaters now; streaming on Prime Video December 21
Maybe it’s just bad timing. Maybe so close on the heels of a film about a real-life ghetto dad willing his daughters to success (King Richard) and a movie memoir about a young boy facing unspeakable tragedy (The Hand of God) and a documentary about an athlete facing down racism his entire career (Citizen Ashe), it’s hard to get wrapped up in the story of two ridiculously wealthy, unfathomably famous people who are facing the possibility of becoming a bit less rich and a little less popular.
Make no mistake, there’s an undeniable shock of electricity when, early in Being the Ricardos, Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem appear as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — she with those blue eyes and fiery hair; he with that jet-black mane and smug, tight-lipped smile. Pretty soon the familiar I Love Lucy theme song — a tune that seems to have burrowed a permanent hollow in the world’s collective cerebral cortex — blasts across the soundtrack, and suddenly we are willing to let writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network) take us wherever he wants to go.
Too bad Sorkin’s destination is a tedious burg called “Trouble on the Set,” a locale that movies have been picking over for nearly a century. In thoughtful hands, backstage dramas can explore universal themes like intergenerational conflict (All About Eve) and the exquisite pain of the creative genius (Mank). Here, though, Sorkin asks us to become passionately invested in two people who are, simply put, having little more than a pretty bad week.
The film opens in 1952, the second year of I Love Lucy’s phenomenal success. Lucy suspects Desi is cheating on her. (Of course, even the most casual Lucy-Desi fan knows that Arnaz had already been catting around for the better part of a decade.) Costars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) are at each other’s throats. Lucy is driving the writers and director crazy with her micromanagement. And the network and sponsors are at their wits’ end because they’ve just learned Lucy is pregnant.
But most potentially damaging: Radio newsman Walter Winchell has just teased that America’s most popular actress is a communist. He doesn’t specifically name Lucy, but his message is clear.
From here, Being the Ricardos walks us, day by day, through this tumultuous week on the set of I Love Lucy. There are tense table readings of the script, strained meetings in the executive suite, and tearful confrontations in the dressing rooms.
The trouble with all of this is, as Being the Ricardos keeps rolling the dice, the audience already knows what numbers are going to come up. Will Lucy and Desi’s marriage survive? Will Frawley and Vance be able to keep working together? Will the network pull the plug on its most popular sitcom because the leading lady is expecting? And will Lucy’s career be destroyed by allegations of communist sympathy?
Let’s put it this way: If you don’t know the answers to all those questions, then you are probably not the target audience for Being the Ricardos.
Which leaves us with just one reason to stick with the film: Assessing how well the stars embody the real-life characters they’re playing.
As Lucy, Kidman is surprisingly faithful to the original — there are times when cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) makes her seem uncannily Lucy-like. Kidman also helps the cause by essentially creating two voices for Lucy. Off-screen, as she barks orders and insults on the set, Lucy has a husky, almost threatening voice. When the cameras roll, though, here comes that familiar high-pitched, child-like timbre. Wisely, Sorkin keeps the reenacted comedy bits to a minimum — it’s no insult to say Kidman, one of the screen’s most skilled actors, is no Lucille Ball.
In contrast, while Bardem gives an effective performance as a proud, traditional Latin confused by his marriage to a powerful woman, he makes nearly no effort to look and sound like Desi Arnaz. At 5-foot-11, Bardem is just an inch taller than Desi was, but he still has that imposing presence that helped earn him an Oscar in No Country for Old Men. He’s arresting where Desi was boyish; aggressive where Desi was vulnerable.
The best performances in Being the Ricardos are, ironically, from the actors playing their downstairs pals, Ethel and Fred Mertz. Nina Arianda’s Vivian Vance is heartbreaking as an ambitious, attractive actress whose biggest professional break condemns her to play a frumpy matron married to a guy twice her age. Best of all is J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, every bit as crusty as the TV character he plays, a guy who comes to the set always drinking but never quite drunk, that uncle who everyone likes precisely because he’s so unlikeable.
Sorkin’s script is occasionally guilty of chronological sins — the episode in question is actually from the show’s first season, not its second; and a network exec talks about the show being “taped” on Friday, even though videotape was unheard of in 1952. Most grievous is his treatment of I Love Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr., who for some reason he casts as a miserably mismatched pair, with Pugh the uber-talented joke machine and Carroll a bumbling, in-over-his-head comedy wannabe. In truth, Pugh and Carroll were an inseparable pair who had already written some 500 radio shows before I Love Lucy ever aired. To comedy writers, Pugh and Carroll are undisputed royalty. It’s hard to understand why Sorkin would do them such a disservice, other than to inject one more cheap layer of conflict in an already overloaded storyline.
As is often the case in Sorkin’s rapid-fire scripts, the best parts of Being the Ricardos come when Sorkin lays down his machine gun and lets the dialogue breathe a bit. He has, in particular, blessed Simmons with the best speech of the film; a short missive delivered in an alley to Lucy and Vivian as they complain about how the world dismisses women of a certain age.
“A man never forgets,” he interjects, hanging his head, “the first time a young woman refers to him as old.” It’s a moment of unexpected, universal poignancy in a film that suffers from its relentless focus on the sorts of problems that, statistically speaking, none of us will ever even whiff.
Featured image: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos (Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC)
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