Hollywood adores few things more than a Hollywood story, so there should be no shortage of folks nostalgic for bygone studio days, ready to eat up Being the Ricardos. But this chronicle of a fraught week in the production of CBS’ phenomenally popular 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy, and the personal and professional lives of its married stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, arguably is as much about Aaron Sorkin as his celebrated subjects. While the film is never less than engrossing, its admiration for the nonpareil physical-comedy gifts of a pioneering giant of American television seems secondary to its coopting of her as a quintessentially Sorkinesque smartest person in the room.
Not that there’s anything illegitimate about such a reading. Ball was clearly an astute creative artist, a tough cookie who shaped both an irresistible character and a powerful path for herself in an industry that hadn’t known what to do with her for decades. And Arnaz was a Cuban immigrant bandleader long marginalized by Hollywood, whose business savvy was as crucial a part of the sitcom’s success as his onscreen charisma in the role of Ricky Ricardo.
Being the Ricardos
‘I Love Aaron?’
But from the walk-and-talks to the smug swipes at almost everyone in positions of power and influence to the patronizing reminders of mid-century gender inequality, the hand of the writer-director seldom goes unnoticed. The smartest person in any room on an Aaron Sorkin film is invariably Aaron Sorkin, and he can’t get out of his own way here. So the audience for this Amazon feature — opening Dec. 10 in theaters ahead of its Dec. 21 streaming premiere — might ultimately swing more toward Sorkin admirers than Lucy devotees.
Favoring deep-dive characterization over physical resemblance or mimicry, the performances of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as golden-age TV’s best-loved couple can’t be faulted. Likewise, those of J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as actors Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Ricardos’ best friends and neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, on TV. All four do standout work, with sturdy backup from Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy as the three writers’ room fixtures struggling to pull together an episode amid constant disruptions.
But the snappy, hyper-articulate banter and the liberal self-congratulation all come from Sorkin’s familiar bag of tricks. The same goes for the bland visual gloss. There’s little sense of impassioned investment to match the fiery outrage that coursed through Sorkin’s last feature, The Trial of the Chicago 7, or his stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, making it easy in those cases to accept the trademark grandstanding. Being the Ricardos feels like a project Sorkin has shaped to fit his interests rather than one organically rooted there, and that assiduous molding drains its emotional charge.
It seems almost inconceivable in these days of infinitely fragmented cable and streaming audiences, but I Love Lucy was drawing 60 million viewers a week when gossip columnist Walter Winchell dropped in an item linking Ball to the Communist Party at the end of his radio broadcast. When stars, writers and producer assemble for Monday morning’s table read, they breathe a sigh of relief that none of the papers has picked up the story. But another item did run suggesting Desi has been philandering, which chafes at Lucy even more.
The setting is prime Sorkin territory, and there’s considerable texture in the snippy dynamics between on-camera talent and creatives, as well as specific interactions within the group, like the antagonistic banter of Vance and the amusingly curmudgeonly Frawley, the latter already drunk at 10 a.m.
Arianda brings a touching bruised dignity to Vance’s resentment at Ethel being the butt of jokes about her frumpiness, and her efforts to make the character something more than a frazzled hausfrau married to a grump many years her senior. But that subplot feels shoehorned in and underexplored. Sorkin hints at Lucy’s vanity in ensuring she’s the most attractive woman on the show, but then lets her off the hook by leaving Vivian’s disgruntlement just hanging there, unresolved and still mostly unaddressed.
The real meat of the film is Lucy and Desi deflecting the pinko taint while simultaneously dealing with marital tensions and fallout from the disclosure that she’s expecting a child. (Sorkin freely admits to fudging the timelines of these convergent crises for dramatic effect.) The alarm of both CBS execs and those of the show’s sponsor company, Philip Morris, at the shocking prospect of a pregnant woman on primetime TV, especially one married to a Latino immigrant, illustrates the uptight mores of the time.
Sorkin weaves in a documentary device by having the key I Love Lucy creative team — head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Hale) and staff writers Madelyn Pugh (Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Lacy) — appear as older versions of themselves, played by John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox, respectively. They pop up at intervals to reflect back on that week, and the anxiety over whether the hit show would be derailed by the Red Scare before its Friday-night live studio taping.
The film is also laced with 1940s flashbacks, tracing Lucy’s days making B pictures as an RKO contract player and the start of her relationship with Desi. Their romance began on the set of Too Many Girls, a deservedly forgotten Rodgers and Hart musical in which he had appeared on Broadway. Desi at the time was regularly performing with his orchestra at venues like Ciro’s (Bardem throws himself with infectious gusto into exuberant musical numbers like “Babalú”), and his love of nightlife from the start makes him an imperfect fit to be paired with Lucy, who wants success but also the stability and comfort of domesticity.
That dichotomy of a couple whose mutual intoxication couldn’t quite overcome their fundamental differences — “Either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off,” as Lavin’s Madelyn describes them — fuels the volatile passions of Kidman and Bardem’s performances throughout. There’s poignancy in Lucy’s loneliness as she comes home to a frequently empty house while Desi stays out carousing, ostensibly playing cards with the boys after his nightclub gigs. His unapologetic ideas of manhood are an uncomfortable fit with their marriage, particularly once his fame is far eclipsed by that of his wife.
Sorkin zeroes in on the anomaly of this ill-matched couple, both of them undervalued by the entertainment industry, stumbling onto an influential star vehicle that would carve them a groundbreaking niche.
From the moment Lucy’s popular radio comedy series, My Favorite Husband, is picked up by CBS to be developed for television, she stands her ground against the network heads’ objections and insists on Desi being her co-star. He in turn becomes a hard-nosed negotiator as head of the production company responsible for the show, standing up to the studio brass in many disputes, including the appropriateness of incorporating Lucy’s pregnancy as a storyline.
He also plays a key role in an eleventh-hour fix when news finally does break in a national paper of Lucy’s one-time marginal affiliation with the Communist Party, though the way Sorkin incorporates J. Edgar Hoover into that solution as an unlikely savior will certainly cause some eyes to roll.
Oozing charisma, Bardem plays Desi with a roguish charm and a shrewd mind. This is Kidman’s film, however, and she makes the most of the contradictions in a woman who was loved for her clownish antics on TV but was exacting about her work to an unforgiving degree; as depicted here, she has no problem being brittle and unyielding when things aren’t going her way. Realizing how much she has riding on the week’s episode as she deals with potentially career-killing press, Lucy seizes on the tiniest nuances of dialogue, comic business, timing and even props to ensure that the Friday episode will be a knockout. She pushes not only the writers but in particular Vance and Frawley to a degree that borders on employee abuse.
As has been widely noted on social media, the willowy Kidman looks nothing like Ball. (Wearing high-waisted 1940s trousers in the flashback scenes, she almost looks more like Katharine Hepburn.) But she plays the laser-focused professionalism and self-preservation with stirring conviction, and she nails the dual on- and off-camera personae in her movements, and above all, in vocal distinctions between the raspy heavy smoker in the writers’ room and the squawking comic on TV. Longtime fans will delight especially in a brief recreation of the famous 1956 “Lucy’s Italian Movie” episode, in which she stomps grapes in a winery vat. Most of all, Kidman conveys the sorrowful frustrations of a perfectionist who couldn’t control the one thing she seemingly cared about most of all — her marriage.
Of the supporting characters, Simmons is the standout as Frawley, balancing his gruffness with avuncular affection while also having fun as deadpan grouch Fred. There are lovely moments of female camaraderie to offset the friction of Lucy with Shawkat’s Madelyn and Arianda’s Vance, even if the feminist angle of the latter’s dissatisafction feels very contemporary in this 1950s context. Even more so the anachronistic use of terms like “gaslighting” and “showrunner” that take you out of the movie.
Anyone curious about the mechanics of a pioneering sitcom will be entertained by Being the Ricardos, and there’s no denying that the performances offer much to savor. I just wish there was more of a sense of the director serving the subject rather than making the subject serve him.