Though tens of millions of people tuned into I Love Lucy Monday evenings throughout the 1950s, it’s unlikely they knew its stars as well as the show made them feel like they did. The new biopic Being the Ricardos pulls back the curtain on Lucy and Ricky Ricardo to reveal the hard-working husband-wife combination behind the fantastically popular series. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s 20-year marriage was far from the rosy sitcom facsimile that they cultivated together but it was a sincere partnership between two talented individuals with mutual professional respect for one another. One of several hats this film wears is that of a cheerleader for their turbulent but trailblazing relationship, making it a frustrating experience when it tries to do too much elsewhere.
It’s 1952 and I Love Lucy is in its second season when a series of events over one production week threaten the life of the show and the marriage of its two co-stars Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). First, at a time when the Red Scare was at a fever pitch, there’s a news report claiming that Ball was a member of the Communist party. Then, there’s a tabloid story circulating that Arnaz is having an affair, although it’s not the first time such an accusation has been leveled against him. These issues are set against perpetual on-set tensions between William Frawley (J. K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play the Ricardos’ neighbors, the Mertzes. Through it all, Ball and Arnaz resolve to overcome these obstacles and put everything they have into the show.
I imagine the performances will be the most glaring aspect of Being the Ricardos for audiences and the actors certainly don’t shy away from taking big swings right out of the gate. It’s important to remember that Kidman is only playing Lucy Ricardo during about 10% of her role, with the other 90% spent as the much more shrewd and domineering Lucille Ball. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin portrays Ball as something of a comedy savant, intensely visualizing the possibilities of a comedic premise and poking holes in it before the writing staff has a chance to pitch it completely. Kidman is a classic cocksure Sorkin protagonist, rattling off one-liners like “I’m Lucille Ball; when I’m being funny, you’ll know it” in her first scene.
Puzzlingly, Sorkin uses a trio of faux-documentary talking heads to frame the action of the narrative in the present day before zipping back to the early 50s. He goes back to them a few times in the film but their placement never meshes with the flow of the story and the performances by the three actors are jilted and awkward. Sorkin complicates things further by flashing back to the early 1940s, when Ball and Arnaz’s paths first crossed and their fates in the entertainment industry were forever intertwined. It’s a fine way for us to invest in these characters and their relationship but these flashback scenes are thrown in among scenes from the 1950s and it can be difficult to parse between the two. This is Sorkin’s third directorial effort and while it’s his best when it comes to the performances he’s able to conjure up, he still has a way to go artistically as a storyteller.
Of course, dialogue has been Sorkin’s bread and butter for decades now and he doesn’t let off the gas this time around. Kidman naturally gets most of the best lines — “I’ll be funny by Friday,” she quips blithely during a Tuesday rehearsal — but I also appreciated the verbal sparring between head writers played by Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy. His scripts have a verve and music to them that screenwriters have been trying and failing to emulate both in TV and in film. He’s done his best work when collaborating with great directors like Mike Nichols and David Fincher but ever since he got the idea that he can direct as well as he can write, the results have been below the bar of excellence he’s set for himself. Being the Ricardos may be the best of the three films Sorkin has directed so far but it’s relatively faint praise for one of Hollywood’s premier scribes.
Score – 3/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s take on the classic 1961 musical starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler about a pair of teenagers falling in love amid rival street gangs in 1950s New York.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is National Champions, a sports drama starring Stephan James and J. K. Simmons about a star collegiate quarterback who ignites a players’ strike hours before the biggest game of the year in order to fight for equal rights.
Streaming on Netflix is The Unforgivable, a legal drama starring Sandra Bullock and Vincent D’Onofrio about a woman who is released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime and re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup