Nicole Kidman plays Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos – on Amazon Prime Video – and you’re either excited or annoyed (or a little of both). Playing a beloved TV all-timer with a face and voice and mannerisms that are cosmically ubiquitous is like dancing the tango through a minefield. While most sensible filmmakers would leave well enough alone and let Lucy live on in our hearts, nobody’s surprised that Sorkin would be the one who didn’t. But he’s also fully capable of walking the tightrope, and bringing the juice to a big Hollywood BOATS (Based On A True Story) movie.
The Gist: Ricardos opens with faux-documentary footage (you may groan here) of interviews with former I Love Lucy writers, years after the show ended. Why? I can’t answer that. But it gives Linda Lavin a few opportunities to deliver zingers, so maybe we should be OK with it. Then the screenplay jumps back to 1953 for a tumultuous week in the life of Lucille Ball and hubby/co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem): A reporter outed her as a Communist, despite being recently cleared by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Desi is on the cover of a tabloid that claims he’s been unfaithful to Lucy. And on top of all that, she’s pregnant, smack in the middle of production for ratings blockbuster I Love Lucy, at a time when even saying the word “pregnant” on television would make viewers faint on the spot and/or dial their local Christian clergyman for an emergency reiteration of universal moral standards. (And let’s face it, those guys are busy enough as it is.)
The movie covers a week behind the scenes of one Lucy episode – when it’s not flashing back to the ’40s here and there for one of two possible reasons: deeper context or it’s just Sorkin indulging himself. During MONDAY: TABLE READ, we meet all the principal Lucy creatives: producer and head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), writers Marilyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), and co-stars Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), and maybe it’s worth mentioning Clark Gregg as a pucker-faced CBS honcho. Lucy and Desi run this show. They’re confident. But they’re also aware that this could be the last-ever MONDAY: TABLE READ if Lucy gets smeared for checking the “Communist” box on her voter registration in 1936 and then never having anything to do with the Communist party since. It’s a tense workplace, but everyone maintains their stinging verbal wit.
As for the Lucy-Desi personal turmoil, it stems from his apparent inability to settle into domesticity. They never see each other. He’s always off headlining his musical act at the club, and if Lucy shows up, he finds himself holding her purse as she signs autographs; or he’s “at the boat” all night “playing cards.” Desi fights like mad for Lucy and the TV show, using his slick charm to grease any sticky wheels. Lucy shows her innate genius for comedy as she picks apart scenes for the week’s show, unafraid to call out her co-workers in front of everybody. She makes Vivian and William come to the set at 2 a.m. to work out a bit, and you just want everyone to follow her instincts, because she always seems to know exactly what works and what will generate the biggest laughs. Meanwhile, they wait out the Communism story; she refuses to stop being the squeaky wheel despite Desi’s slick charm; and they fight to get Lucy’s soon-to-be-visible pregnant belly in front of 60 million TV viewers. There’s the usual Sorkin heavily salted banter about sex, politics and sexual politcs, and Kidman and Bardem leaning heavily into archetypes, but are there any walk-and-talks? NOT A SPOILER IN THE LEAST: Yes, of course there are walk-and-talks.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Hot take, comin’ thru: Moneyball is Sorkin’s best screenplay.
Performance Worth Watching: I’m feeling heavily obligated to talk about Kidman here, because she faces the greatest challenge, and makes it work. Beneath some distracting makeup and prosthetics – hey, if the performance is good, then we’ll believe it regardless – she finds a complex Lucy character who’s doing her best to sidestep distractions and do what she does best: be funny. As long as she can be funny, she can endure everything else. She’s fulfilling her greater purpose. In Kidman’s performance, we see a woman who’s a shrewd mind, assured but vulnerable, and something of a sad clown (but minus the cliches). And after all that, I feel that Hale and Shawkat’s performances – as the people trying to weather storms and keep the I Love Lucy ship pointed in the right direction – are the film’s best, because they’re unassuming, smartly underplayed and the type of roles functioning as foundational glue that holds everything together dramatically.
Memorable Dialogue: Lavin, as the older Madelyn Pugh: “It was Lucy and Desi – they were either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off.”
Sex and Skin: Not much – Lucy and Desi get horizontal in silhouette.
Our Take: Being the Ricardos is as ostentatious as it is thematically mooshy, as entertaining as it is irritating. I waver between being impressed with Kidman-as-Lucy, and thinking that Lucy should be left the f— alone and never, ever dramatized in a movie or series. Can we have one lousy sacred cow, one single icon who isn’t the object of a showy biopic propped up with stunt casting?
So I had my dukes up for this movie, but Sorkin makes a mostly convincing case for its existence by kettling up three dramatic arcs and turning up the burner. But he also dilutes the tension by cutting in flashbacks and the faux-documentary scenes, which pads the run time (131 minutes!) and takes us away from the story’s most compelling conflicts. He stages re-enactments of a few iconic I Love Lucy bits, which show us how lean and efficient Lucy’s performances were – if the jokes weren’t honed to perfection, they didn’t work for 1950s sitcom TV. It’s hard not to notice the irony when a film about a woman who’s an economical master of her craft is needlessly convoluted. Ricardos is at its best when it works past the Desi-Lucy domestic drama fodder and ropes in Hale, Simmons, Shawkat and Vance – all excellent – for exceptional dramatizations of a hit TV series’ procedural inner workings. Those sequences are tight, insightful and funny, and all but beg for greater emphasis than Sorkin gives them.
Kidman manages to cut through some of the chaff, assuring that we care about Lucy and her place in the pantheon, as the rare female of the era who wielded real power in rooms full of men, as a woman seeking and sticking with her truth, in her art, her marriage and her politics. If we’re going to find anything worthwhile among the flash and showbizzy indulgence inherent in Hollywood bio-dramas about people whose work so clearly speaks for itself, it’s that nugget of earnest inspiration.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Being the Ricardos is uneven and full of itself; we’ve either warmed to such Sorkinisms or are very much over them. But it’s also an entertaining, occasionally fascinating drama that’s likely to satisfy your curiosity about Kidman’s ability to acquit her decision to play superstar among superstars. The movie just barely justifies its existence – and therefore justifies your watching it.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.