Oscar Films

‘Being the Ricardos’ Is Intriguing, But…

A plot-heavy mishmash, with strong performances by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem.

By - Jan 28th, 2022 01:44 pm

Being the Ricardos

Though Aaron Sorkin has enjoyed success on stage and in film, he remains best known for TV series such as “The West Wing” that made his gifts as a writer part of the American landscape, so prolific that many of his devices have become staples of parody.

His extraordinary talents as a writing craftsman surpass his capable and competent abilities as a director in Being the Ricardos, which plays with the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by compressing and inventing moments from their private lives sliding into table readings and concocted backstage juggling during the making of “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957).

Sorkin starts with what he knows best, the intricacies of writing and show-running, casting older actors against their younger selves to enact as well as reflect on what is happening (including an excellent Tony Hale as the uneasy show runner and ostensible boss, as if anyone could control Lucy and Desi).

It’s an intriguing sign of respect or love of good dialogue that Sorkin uses de-aging cinematic trickery to help Javier Bardem become the younger Desi as a bandleader and Latin hunk who eloped with Lucy in 1940. But when it comes to backstage remembrances, he uses noted older actors (John Rubenstein, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox) against their younger backstage selves (Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy)

For TV sidekicks Ethel and Fred Mertz, he uses a decidedly more attractive Nina Arianda to remind us that Vivian Vance had to play dumpy though she had considerable Broadway credits and glamour appeal well before Lucy. He also uses J.K. Simmons, a fine actor forced to find a way to start grumpy and wind up as lovable confidante William Frawley, while also interpreting how Fred and Ethel never got along.

Sorkin’s technique of revealing alliances and unease through shifting relationships onstage and off is actually quite adept at providing a through-line for a good movie actress, Nicole Kidman, to keep us watching a mercurial Lucy, whom she doesn’t look like except suddenly in some silhouettes, eye rolls and facial expressions – this is not the real Lucy.  It is not mimicry and that has gotten Kidman criticized, but may also get her an Oscar nod.

It is a remarkably watchable creation suggesting an intellect at work within the pratfalls — if you can put aside your actual memories of Lucy and just forget the older Ball who became a tiresome bore in such films as Mame.

Similarly, Bardem doesn’t really look like Desi, but it is a strong performance (touted for best actor) by an actor who understands the chauvinism of the times, the volatility and sarcasm Sorkin relishes and the tendency of TV executives to underrate the temperament and brain behind the Cuban accent.

The whole story revolves around Lucy’s suspicions about Desi’s roaming ways, which frankly doesn’t fit either’s history. Their passion, mutual regard and roaming was part of their relationship.

Sorkin has taken a number of events in the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and jumbled them together to create his own mythology.

It is true the magazines were quick to report Desi catting around, but it’s doubtful his infidelities were so new to her to become Sorkin’s central plot point.  It is also true that family loyalty led her to join the Communist Party in the 1930s when so many Americans did — and that CBS didn’t want a pregnant Lucy to invade its biggest hit show, fodder for Sorkin as he mashes it all together to fit his bouncing one-week timeline.

Less comprehensible to me was Sorkin’s deliberate fudging of a movie history he should know well.  It jumped out at me, perhaps because I may be one of the few people in the audience who has actually seen Lucy and Desi’s early Hollywood work, particularly Lucy’s serious movie role in The Big Street as a hatefully self-centered beauty that Henry Fonda worships.

As good as she was, it did lead RKO to drop her contract (ironically the studio she and Desi owned 15 years later), but Sorkin spends a lot of screen time insulting Judy Holliday as one of her rivals for the role, though Judy had not even had her first Broadway hit in 1942 when Big Street was released.  He mentions Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford as Lucy’s rivals for the role, but in truth it was more likely Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck in a film that has the Frank Capra aura around it but failed to excite the box office.

These constant Sorkin digs at Holliday made me wonder if Lucy really hated the comedienne – and then I remembered both in the 1950s had been called before the blacklist committee (HUAC, a key plot element) that Lucy got a clear stamp of approval from —  as did Holliday, who later admitted she just pretended to be the dumb blond of Born Yesterday to escape. But that is a heck of thin stick for Sorkin to waste so much screen time on. The Holliday references seem dragged in and make you wonder what else was fabricated, including Desi’s escape from Cuba.

Like most Sorkin creations, this is eminently watchable yet frustrating in how many conversations are just showing off the writer’s ability to keep our attention without advancing anything. Some of the performances as worth noting, but a central theme – suggesting Lucy ought to be holding master classes in comedic analysis – becomes a stretch in believability that Kidman neatly dances her way through. Sorkin’s camera also dances with black-and-white evocations of the original sitcom.

Being the Ricardos is at movie theaters or available with membership in Amazon Prime.

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