‘Being the Ricardos’ Is Aaron Sorkin’s Serious Portrait of a Comedic Icon in Her Darkest Hour
While the classic 1950’s sitcom “I Love Lucy” was an escape for many during its run and in the years since, star Lucille Ball’s life was way more complicated than Lucy Ricardo’s, and writer-director Aaron Sorkin examines what most likely was her most stressful week in biographical drama “Being the Ricardos.” Nicole Kidman plays the comedic actress as she navigates being accused of being a communist, a label that was career-ending in Hollywood at that time. Her situation is compounded by the latest bump in her tumultuous marriage to co-star, Desi Arnaz, played by Javier Bardem.
“Being the Ricardos” is set over the course of one week leading up to a live taping of an “I Love Lucy” episode, with flashbacks detailing Lucy’s life and career from the time she met Desi in 1940. It should be one of the happiest times in Lucy’s life, as her show is insanely popular at this point and she’s pregnant with her second child, but reports of her being a part of the Communist Party and Desi’s rumored infidelities hang over her. Sorkin paints a portrait here of a marriage that is passionate but troubled, and not just because of Desi’s wandering eye. Being a successful woman in the post-WWII era, a time in which women were encouraged to reclaim their places in the kitchen, was even more complicated than it is today, and she’s pressured to give into to certain things in order to placate her husband, a band leader whom she had to convince TV executives to cast on her show.
Arnaz was six years younger than Ball (something that doesn’t come across on screen due to Bardem being slightly older than Kidman) and never experienced the same level of success as his wife. However, the film portrays him as a savvy businessman in his own right. Both Bardem and Kidman play their characters at the top of their game. The Lucy Ricardo we saw on TV was a housewife prone to whining, but the real Lucy seen here is determined and focused, offering a whole new appreciation for the groundbreaking performer, who was concerned with every aspect of her show. There’s a downside to this, such as when she calls her coworkers William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivan Vance (Nina Arianda), the actors behind Fred and Ethel, into work at three in the morning in order to rehearse. Like many artists, she threw herself into her work to distract from emotional pain.
It’s bemusing to see here how much television has changed in 70 years. When Lucy and Desi push to have Lucy’s pregnancy written into the show, the executives and advertisers initially refuse to entertain the idea, as a pregnancy insinuates that Lucy Ricardo had sex, a major taboo at the time even for a married character. Flashbacks also reveal that the execs were hesitant to cast the Cuban-born Desi because he did not fit their ideal of to whom “all-American” Lucy should be married to. Then, there’s an illuminating conversation between Kidman and Alia Shawkat, who plays Madelyn Pugh, then the sole female writer on “I Love Lucy.” In true Sorkin fashion, it’s a satisfying back-and-forth with plenty of push and pull. While Madelyn wants to change Lucy Ricardo to give her more agency, her boss disagrees that the character is being infantilized.
A drawback of having Sorkin make a movie about Lucy is that he really isn’t a comedy guy. Just as he did with his one-season wonder series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” he knocks it out of the park when it comes to exploring the behind-the-scenes politics of a major production, but falls short of tapping into what exactly is funny and why people adored “I Love Lucy.” Neither Kidman and Bardem, for all their gifts, are known for getting laughs, so “Being the Ricardos” doesn’t really capture the charm that made Lucy and her show so beloved. Going into the film, one really has to be familiar with the series to appreciate some aspects of it.
However, Sorkin, Kidman and Bardem nail it when it comes to the more dramatic scenes. A stand out is when Lucy and Desi have a heated conversation about her ties to communism. While she never really was active in the party, she did check a box years ago as a way to honor her socialist grandfather, and even that angers her husband, who had to flee communist Cuba at a young age. There’s also the emotionally-stirring climax that sees Desi acting almost heroically for his wife, only to let her down minutes later.
Overall, Kidman and Bardem stun with their passionate performances, and Shawkat and Arianda impress with their smaller roles, showing potential to take their respective careers to the next level. The always great J.K. Simmons also gives a winning performance as the avuncular Frawley, a former vaudeville entertainer with a soft spot for Lucy.
“Being the Ricardos” releases Dec. 10 in select theaters and Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime Video.