Writer/director Aaron Sorkin is no stranger to historical drama and Being the Ricardos adds to the list. With a deft ensemble and a dynamite lead performance from Nicole Kidman, the film will be an enjoyable time for fans of I Love Lucy and Sorkin fans alike. If Sorkin isn’t your cup of tea, this film can be hard to swallow.
Lucille Ball (Kidman) is at the height of her powers. Alongside her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), their sitcom I Love Lucy is the most popular show on television. But in 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy was on the hunt for Communists within the United States. Word gets out among the CBS executives that Ball was interviewed by the committee.
Ball and Arnaz begin to question the viability of the show if this information became public. To add to Ball’s worries, Arnaz is plastered on the cover of a tabloid with another woman. All of this happens during a regular week of trying to put on the show.
Other issues arise, including a new director, problems with Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), and further personal issues butting heads with the show. From the Monday table read to the Friday taping in front of a live studio audience, will the show survive the week, and will Lucy and Desi survive as well?
The film has a storytelling device from the perspective of writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat/Linda Lavin), Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy/Ronnie Cox), and the executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale/John Rubinstein). While the younger versions interact with the story in 1953, the older versions recall that week’s events through interviews. This structure paints an odd picture of nostalgia, despite all three real-life people having all died. This structure leads to unearned hindsight.
The power struggle between Lucy and Desi dominates the film. Lucy is the primary creative decisionmaker while Desi controls all the business. Despite this separation, Frawley notices the potential emasculation of Desi whenever Lucy takes over the show and makes changes. All the while, flashbacks present Lucy as someone who craves domestic bliss above all others.
This patronizing tone is ever-present. Lucy falls over herself to tell anyone who will listen that Desi is the brains behind everything. Arnaz’s virtues are continually extolled to the point where Lucy attempts to get more credit to Desi. Desi is shown as nearly faultless, but just occasionally emotionally distant. Meanwhile, Lucy is a savant. When rehearsing a scene or hearing a pitch for a bit, Lucy can picture everything that happens to the most minute detail. She has nothing but respect for the audience and always knows what is funny.
Sorkin presents everything with hyper-realism. Everything that transpired is conveyed as fact, though almost every situation stretches reality. Often, events the audience is expected to believe are something that absolutely did not happen. For a writer and director of self-exalted intelligence, Sorkin has very little faith that his audience shares that intelligence.
Kidman dominates the narrative. Despite looking very little like anyone besides Nicole Kidman, she embodies the ideal of who Lucille Ball was. She has a clear separation between Lucy the performer and Lucy the woman. Kidman suits Sorkin’s dialogue with sharp wit and impeccable timing. The audience never sees Kidman as Lucy, but it doesn’t really matter.
Bardem does his level best at Desi, but it really doesn’t translate. The film overexplains Desi’s swagger, charm, and good looks, but Bardem can only do so much with one hand behind his back. Bardem is miscast. Despite his best efforts, it’s one of the major faults of the film.
Simmons does his predictable solid job, but it’s in a role he could do in his sleep. Arianda has a much more difficult role and does much more with it. Vance is a character to be laughed at and joked about. Arianda shines when confronting the reality of the situation and the needs of her character. All of her struggles are internal because she isn’t the star. Any problems she has to face have to be out of the limelight because the show can’t be about her. Arianda fights off Kidman for best-in-show honors.
Shawkat and Hale are given a bit of fun to work with on the sidelines. But, the main four characters are the only ones the film primarily focuses on. The rest of the supporting cast includes small parts by recognizable character actors like Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, and Christopher Denham.
Devotees to Sorkin will fall in lockstep with Being the Ricardos. While his penchant for rapid-fire dialogue, male ego, and exceptionalism may wear thin on some, the excellent performances elevate the film to deliver an entertaining experience.