Nothing is safe from remake or biopic treatment these days. The first of the big three coming in December 2021 hits theaters this week, with Being the Ricardos. The Aaron Sorkin retelling of the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz has been hotly anticipated (or dreaded) by film and TV fans the world over and is somehow an even more scorching subject on social media. Should you rush to check it out? Well, I dove into it, so you might not have to! Read on!
Being the Ricardos tells the story of the iconic Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). The movie takes a multi-narrative approach, looking at not only the beginnings of their iconic relationship but the struggles they faced as public figures when Ball finds herself fighting accusations of having communist sympathies. Nina Arianda, J.K. Simmons, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, and Tony Hale co-star in the movie. Aaron Sorkin directs Being the Ricardos from his own script.
Being the Ricardos exploded into a hot topic when Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem were announced to be joining the cast. Questions of casting were first in my mind as I sat down to watch this movie. I have been vocally critical of the trailers and of the casting, particularly Kidman and Bardem as the leads. Ultimately, in tackling the story of a cultural legend like Lucille Ball, any movie is going to struggle. Over the last sixty years, generations have grown up with I Love Lucy which has rarely (if ever) been off the air.
Nicole Kidman tackles the part of Lucille Ball and she does do her darndest. Any performer tackling a role like this is fighting an uphill battle. Not only must Kidman contend with Ball’s star persona, but her own as well. Kidman is an A-list Hollywood talent and she struggles to lose herself in the part. As a viewer, it was rare when I was able to forget that I was watching Nicole Kidman playing Lucille Ball.
Kidman carries a lot of weight in this movie. We see Lucille Ball through various points in life, from the 1940 filming of Too Many Girls to Being the Ricardos 1953 setting. She also plays “Lucy” in a number of recreations of the television show. Kidman is at her most comfortable (and most believable) as Lucille Ball in 1953. She easily wraps her head around Ball as the no-nonsense businesswoman who is very much in control of her own image.
Kidman’s biggest struggles occur in the I Love Lucy recreations. This is also where the movie itself sees its biggest problems. What Sorkin and company fail to capture is the magic of the original I Love Lucy. There are a number of scenes where we see the sitcom depicted within the narrative of the movie, usually as Ball uses her skill to solve a story issue. It seems though, not only Kidman, but Sorkin as well struggles to understand what made the sitcom entertaining. At points, the sequences feel forced, awkward, and even juvenile. To be honest, I found myself wondering if the crew even watched an episode of I Love Lucy as they were bringing the story to life. As a creator who built his reputation on television, Sorkin should be ashamed of his lack of understanding of this essential sitcom.
While Kidman has flashes of genius as Ball, Bardem never manages to wrap his head around Arnaz. Bardem manages a solid impression of Arnaz’s accent, but this is as far as his performance goes: an impression. It is a bit of a poor one at that. In bringing Desi Arnaz to life, Bardem has even more heavy lifting than Kidman. At various points in the narrative, we see him perform Arnaz’s hits “Babalu” and “Cuban Pete”. At the same time, when the script ventures back to the couple’s 1940 meeting, history reminds us that Desi Arnaz was 22 years old. I hate to be mean, but there is no universe where Javier Bardem passes for that young unaided. Thanks to costuming and make-up, Kidman comes closer to pulling off Ball’s 29 years.
Bardem, unfortunately, has one speed throughout the film and it ultimately never gives Arnaz the respect he deserves. Desi Arnaz has been widely credited for crafting not only I Love Lucy but revolutionizing the television industry as we know it today. While he was a tremendously complicated individual, he was a genius. Sorkin and Bardem never manage to bring this to the screen. The audience is told how smart Desi is, but little is done to show us his genius. The film is far more invested in showing Ball’s undeniable brilliance. However, in a story committed to building these characters as a couple, failing Desi in this way does a disservice to both.
Where Being the Ricardos shines brightest is in its supporting performances. Nina Arianda is the unsung MVP of the movie. She brings a sensitive, insightful, and beautiful portrayal of Vivian Vance (which is horrendously overdue). J.K. Simmons is equally good stepping into the formidable shoes of William Frawley. While not dead ringers for their real-life counterparts, both beautifully capture the essence of the legendary performers.
Meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that Aaron Sorkin (a writer by trade) would ace the depiction of I Love Lucy‘s “behind the camera” talent. While they are (once again) far from dead ringers, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, and Jake Lacy kill it as Madelyn Pugh, Jess Oppenheimer, and Bob Carroll Jr respectively. Hale steps out in front of the supporting cast with a beautiful and dynamic performance which is a breath of fresh air for the usually comedic actor. While I came into the picture giggling about the Arrested Development reunion, I came out wanting Hale in awards consideration.
Okay, I do have one nitpicky problem. Yes, this film is Ball and Arnaz’s story. As mentioned, Sorkin comes into this historical picture with a lack of appreciation for history. While I very much enjoyed Lacy and Shawkat in their respective roles, the movie doesn’t understand who these writers are. At times, they seem like stereotypically snide, snarky (and very young) comedy writers. In reality, Carroll and Pugh were two finely tuned comedic minds who had been writing for almost ten years by the time this movie takes place. The duo came up through the industry writing for radio and had struck a partnership with Ball after making a name for themselves writing for Steve Allen. These weren’t kids. They were geniuses and genuine talents in their own right.
Sorkin’s script seems generally confused. While the film is structured as a bit of a “day in the life” for the crew, there is also a lot of emphasis on the flashbacks. At the same time, Sorkin employs a strange framing device as the entry point into the story. In moments that feel very out of place Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox and John Rubinstein stand in as Pugh, Carroll, and Oppenheimer telling the story as their older selves. Is this Sorkin trying to give credit to the unsung writers? Potentially. Unfortunately, though, the device feels clunky and doesn’t fit in the grand scheme of the narrative.
At the same time, Being the Ricardos realizes (far too late) that it has amazing women characters. The story alternatively explores this in depictions of Ball, Vance and Pugh, three women struggling to succeed in a man’s world. There’s even a beautiful scene that gives us all three women alone together on screen. However, this doesn’t happen until deep in the third act and it’s a case of too little too late. Why couldn’t we have heard these stories?
Potential Spoiler Alert
To me, this isn’t a spoiler, but you’ve been warned. Lucille Ball wasn’t blacklisted for communist sympathies. The film however, desperately wants this to be the “A story” even against Desi’s infidelity, Lucille Ball’s pregnancy and the couple’s struggle with gender power dynamics (all of which are far more interesting than the ‘Lucy is a Red’ plot). Ultimately, there is no tension here.
At the same time, Sorkin’s handling of the final act kills any and all drama in a muddled finale. The film desperately wants to have a rousing, Sorkin-like political speech. This is the creator of The West Wing, for crying out loud. The moment even seems to be set-up, complete with the swelling music score… then Desi just calls J. Edgar Hoover to bring things to a close. The whole handling feels… strange. Narratively, it ends the film on a really odd point and it hits wrong. Is this supposed to be rousing? Are we supposed to be happy? Whatever we’re supposed to feel, it doesn’t come across.
To be blunt, I was expecting a lot worse from Being the Ricardos. Was it terrible? No. There were flashes of greatness, particularly from a handful of the performers in this talented cast. However, as a creator who started in television, Aaron Sorkin should be ashamed of his shallow handling of television history. Much of the movie’s struggles fall squarely on his shoulders. This could have been a far different (and better) movie in the hands of a different creator. Fans of TV history should take their time going to see this one. Fans of Kidman and Bardem in particular should find a lot to enjoy, but Lucy and Ricky (and for that matter, Ball and Arnaz) fans should temper their expectations.
Being the Ricardos opens in theaters on December 10th. It hits Amazon Prime on December 21st.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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