It’s the week from hell for America’s favorite TV couple. Lucille Ball’s membership with the Communist Party has been leaked to the press. Her husband Desi Arnaz might be cheating on her, as he’s hardly been home for days. Something isn’t quite right with the opening scene in the latest I Love Lucy episode either, causing Lucille to fuss — and even call her co-stars, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, to the soundstage in the middle of the night on the eve of showtime. Oh, and to make matters more complicated, Lucille is also pregnant. Instead of haphazardly concealing it by way of chairs or the dreaded laundry basket, Desi pleads his case to the network and investors that they can incorporate her pregnancy into the show, concluding the season with the birth of “Little Ricky.” The network can’t bear the thought. Grab the smelling salts. Frankly, my dear, Desi doesn’t give a damn.
It’s all in a week’s work and the basis for Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos. It has enough basis for an eight-episode miniseries on the week alone. For every element Sorkin’s latest nails, another pesky one risks undercutting it. What we’re left with is a very mixed blessing. A momentarily amusing, somewhat wryly funny curtain-peel of one of the most iconic sitcoms of all time that unfortunately fails to articulate the “why” behind I Love Lucy‘s then-unprecedented success.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are played handsomely by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Both aren’t so much trying to embody the famous actors as present an interpretation of their personalities. Bardem feels closer to the mark than Kidman. Bardem (who is Spanish, for the record) nails Arnaz’s Cuban dialect at all times. Kidman, by contrast, slips in-and-out of accent, as if she can’t decide the right tonal inflection for her character. Oddly enough, Kidman is at her best when she’s playing Lucille Ball playing Lucy during rehearsals.
Then there’s William Frawley and Vivian Vance, played by J. K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, respectively, who played landlord/landlady Fred and Ethel on the program. Simmons is intensely watchable every time he steps on-screen thanks to his trademark blend of matter-of-factness and persnickety snark.
One of my favorite scenes occurs when Simmons’ Frawley pulls Ball aside from filming and treats her to a drink at the scuzzy bar across from the studio. “Who goes to a bar on a Wednesday morning?” Lucille asks him. “It’s an eclectic bunch,” William responds. Fearful that she’ll be recognized, William assures her — in that hushed yet enunciated manner only Simmons can capture so thoughtfully — “these people don’t even own televisions.” Moreover, when given the floor, Arianda brings some humanization to the woman responsible for Ethel. A poignant moment comes when Vivian accosts Lucille for having one of the writers bring her breakfast. Lucille noticed Vance getting slimmer from one of yet another quack diet and wanted her to have a hearty meal. But being that she can’t massage a touchy situation, especially under so much pressure, Lucille doesn’t make the gesture any less hurtful to Vivian than it already is.
Then there’s Tony Hale, as the program’s showrunner, who is always between a rock and a hard place. Also throw in Alia Shawkat’s Madelyn Pugh and Jake Lacy’s Bob Carroll, staff writers for the sitcom that some-60 million Americans tuned into watch every Monday night (a number massive enough to justify the closing of department stores and the widespread limited use of water for a half-hour on Monday evenings, as we’re told in the opening scene).
If you judge Being the Ricardos on performances alone, it holds up as well as most dramas released this year. But the performers never feel like they’ve given all they can produce due to Sorkin’s sloppy narrative, which wants to be anything and everything all of the time. Interjected at random are the staff writers, now much older, remarking about their experiences during that tumultuous week. But they’re not the real-life writers. They’re actors cast to play the older versions of Pugh and Carroll. American Animals this is not. It’s such an inexplicable decision that undermines a film that wants to posit itself as a docudrama of sorts when it’s perfectly competent as the latter alone.
There’s simply too much going on to accommodate that needless move anyway. In addition to focusing on the hellish week at hand, Sorkin flashes back to show how Lucille and Desi first met, and when Lucille got her big break in The Big Street, opposite Henry Fonda. We can’t even appreciate the table-read nor Lucille’s pregnancy reveal because the scenes are constantly interrupted by the same actors reenacting cherished moments from the sitcom. Tossed aside is the brewing of chemistry, not to mention tonal consistency. Being the Ricardos can’t decide what it wants to be, and if not for the quality performances, it would’ve totally run itself off the rails.
It might be time for Sorkin to consider making a move out of the director’s chair and commit to being a full-time writer. His zippy yet eloquent dialog and attention to characters is what makes him the talent he is. Behind the camera, however, like the lives of his characters, he has simply too much going on that handicaps Being the Ricardos in taking form.
NOTE: Being the Ricardos is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J. K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy. Directed by: Aaron Sorkin.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!