Aaron Sorkin just can’t help telling the story of the beloved 1950s sitcom duo through a modern lens.
One cannot review Being the Ricardos without addressing the curious casting choice of Nicole Kidman as First Lady of Comedy Lucille Ball. Other than being a redhead, Kidman looks nothing like Ball, and has never been known for her comedic chops. Given that the teaser trailer went out of its way to not show her, it seemed a disaster in the making, a future camp classic originally intended to be Oscar bait.
As it turns out, Kidman is among the least of the movie’s problems. Although she still doesn’t look much like Ball, and the slapstick comedy Ball was best known for is barely shown, Kidman, speaking in a raspy, cigarette-worn voice, seems to have the spirit of her down. Javier Bardem doesn’t look or sound much like Desi Arnaz either, but, again, particularly when he’s singing, it’s a serviceable, respectful impression. Where Being the Ricardos falters is in director Aaron Sorkin’s script, which leans on stale biopic tropes while also presenting them in a contemporary light. Chockfull of the passionate speeches and wry zingers that made Sorkin famous, he doesn’t tell the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz so much as use them as characters in a sweeping story of feminism, ambition, the Red Scare, the First Amendment, and creative types pushing back against the Man.
While there are the usual flashbacks to how our tumultuous lovebirds, who were always “either tearing each other heads off or each other’s clothes off,” first met, and their rise to fame, the film predominantly takes place in one week, during which gossip columnist Walter Winchell announces Lucy is a card carrying member of the Communist Party, Lucy announces she’s pregnant, and Desi’s serial infidelity becomes tabloid fodder. In reality, that all happened over a period of a few years, but sure, fine, for dramatic purposes let’s squeeze it all into one week. In addition to keeping their struggling marriage together, Lucy and Desi are juggling all this, while also deeply involved in the laborious process of producing a TV show, where the art of crafting jokes seems like the most thankless chore imaginable.
As evidenced in Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, Sorkin loves nothing more than “behind the scenes” stories, depicting the tediousness of scriptwriting, blocking, staging and directing a TV show. He also loves characters arguing with each other, and you get a lot of both here, often at the same time. Ball had a reputation for being harsh and controlling, and in Being the Ricardos that’s virtually all she is, making life difficult for I Love Lucy’s put upon creator Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), its director, and the writing staff. Thanks to a toxic combination of ambition and insecurity, Ball does things like monitor co-star and supposed best friend Vivian Vance’s (Nina Arianda) weight, and forces Vance and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) out of bed at 2 a.m. to rehearse a single scene.
The film suggests that this is driven less by Ball’s perfectionism than Arnaz’s infidelity, but other than a few heated arguments and Arnaz’s denials, nothing much really comes of that. Sorkin wrote Being the Ricardos, and presumably researched the life and careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but doesn’t really seem interested in who they were as people. Ball doesn’t come off as a comedian so much as someone whose job is being funny, and she hates her job. While it’s possible that was actually true, it’s such a surface portrayal of her (through no fault of Kidman’s) that we get no sense of why she chose to make a career out of something she gets so little enjoyment out of doing.
In an interview to promote his film, Sorkin was quoted as saying he didn’t think today’s audiences would find I Love Lucy funny. Indeed, he clearly doesn’t find it funny either, which is why far more of Being the Ricardos is devoted to the characters talking about it than actually filming it. A particularly cringe-worthy moment is when staff writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) takes Ball aside and criticizes the show for “infantilizing” her character. Did this actually happen? Who can say, but Pugh’s concerns don’t feel of the times, especially considering she was speaking to the star of the show and creator of the character, a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself. It feels like a modern perspective on a 70 year-old sitcom, a drawn-out “boy, this old TV show/movie/book sure hasn’t aged well” essay put to film. It feels, well, like what Aaron Sorkin thinks of it, which isn’t much.
Make no mistake, Being the Ricardos looks very nice, with gorgeous costumes and lavish production design. Kidman and Bardem are a formidable duo, shored up by excellent supporting performances, particularly Arianda and the ever-reliable J.K. Simmons. But it’s all in service of Sorkin’s desire to say Important Things about the Red Scare (it was bad), corporate suits getting involved in the creative process (terrible!) and feminism (it’s good, maybe). Lucy and Desi’s story is low on his list of priorities, and that’s a curiously detached approach to take to a biopic.
Being the Ricardos is now available on Amazon Prime.