A film review by Craig J. Koban January 5, 2022

BEING THE RICARDOS jjj

2021, R, 131 mins

Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball  /  Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz  /  J.K. Simmons as William Frawley  / Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance  /  Jake Lacy as Bob Carroll Jr.  /  Alia Shawkat as Madelyn Pugh  /  Tony Hale as Jess Oppenheimer

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
 

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

At the very height of the pioneering TV sitcom's popularity in the 1950s, I LOVE LUCY was the most watched program in the United States with an estimated 60 million viewers each week.  

To put it bluntly, nearly 40 per cent of all Americans tuned in for this program back in the day.  

That's pretty astounding.  

Clearly, the heart, soul, and creative epicenter of the show was Lucille Ball, who was a definite trailblazing feminist for the Golden Age of television that paved the way for the sitcom format and other small screen stars to come.  The trials and tribulations of making such a watershed show seems like absolutely fertile ground for writer/director Aaron Sorkin, and one of the finest things that can be said about his Amazon Prime original film BEING THE RICARDOS is that it doesn't take the obligatory life story/biopic approach in chronicling Ball's (and her then husband, co-star and business partner in Desi Arnaz) rise to fame and fortune and instead focuses on a highly stressful week for the comedic dynamic duo in 1953, during which time they were trying to not only get their show ready for a live audience, but were also facing problems on both the home and political front.  As a snapshot into a crucial period of Ball/Arnaz's working relationship, BEING THE RICARDOS is a compelling expose in most respects.

The film thrusts us directly into the creative whirlwind storm that surrounded just about every facet of getting I LOVE LUCY from script to screen, and the week that the film covers is riddled with multiple stresses for everyone involved.  During this fairly devastating seven day period - dubbed by Ball herself as a "compound fracture week" - showrunner Jess (Tony Hale) is trying to find ways to spruce up and enliven the writing for their upcoming episode.  Despite the fact that the show is a resounding and consistent ratings smash, the producers and writers want to avoid creative dormancy, something that head staff writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat, like Hale, the film's other ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT alumni) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy) agree with.  Of course, tossed into this process are the usual motley crew of TV executives, producers, and the show's co-stars in William Frawley and Vivian Vance (a sensational J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda).  The big game players that call the shots, though, are Lucy herself (Nicole Kidman) and her Cuban hubby in Desi (Javier Bardem), and because both of them (well, mostly Lucy) are so aggressively hands on and controlling about their bread and butter livelihoods, a lot of stalemates ensue these script meetings and dress rehearsals.   

 

 

Lucy and Desi wanting to assume complete control over their series is far from the rockiest thing that happens to everyone on this show's crew, though.  They are all dealt with an incredibly ill timed blow when a gossip columnist has revealed to his readers (and eventually many more) that Lucy once - in the distant past - acknowledged herself as a Communist on paper, which - despite her having no current allegiance to the party - was a devastating black mark to hang over any celebrity during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare paranoia that gripped the U.S..  Realizing that they must engage in immediate damage control and put out what will become a horribly large fire that could destroy Lucy and the show, the producers and Desi have their own respective plans as to how to contain this information, with Lucy herself having her own mind made up as to how to proceed.  If that were not bad enough, the show is ravaged by two other controversies: (1) Lucy has revealed to the show's higher ups that she's pregnant (and having a visibly pregnant woman on TV in an era when fictional husbands and wives didn't even share the same beds on the air was a large problem) and (2) it appears that Desi may or may not have been faithful to his loving wife, which forces the couple to revaluate their marriage at the worst possible of time. 

Sorkin's more insular focus here makes sense considering the relatively limited confines of a single two hour film.  It could be easily said that a full bodied biopic of Ball's life and career would make more sense in a long form mini-series format.  Sorkin, as a good student of history, immediately grounds viewers in the troubling times of the early 50s, which not only saw America tainted by rampant McCarthyism run fully amok, but it was also a thorny time in a then-in-its-infancy TV industry when female power players were not a dime a dozen, nor the norm.  One thing that Sorkin's razor sharp and attuned screenplay nails is its portrait of Ball as a daring, courageous, and groundbreaking mind within her industry that came from relatively humble career beginnings after a mostly failed stint in movies and radio.  And Ball was - while facing the pressures of a male dominated work environment - a radically ahead of her time thinker, especially for how she cultivated her on-screen comedic image so meticulously and for how she pushed back against standards, practices and status quos of the era.  The thought of having a pregnant woman on television was ghastly unheard of in the 1950s (that would imply - gasp! - that Lucy and Desi slept together and had sex!).  Lucy is certainly shown as a stubbornly domineering woman and borderline obsessive compulsive nitpicker when it came to the minutia of I LOVE LUCY, but she's also portrayed as a brave conceptual force that didn't take no for an answer when so many others in her field had to. 

Equally commendable is Sorkin's drive to do everything possible to humanize this couple behind the scenes.  He resists the urge to recreate many classic moments from the I LOVE LUCY shows (snippets creep in, though, from time to time), but his real end game here is to ground us in Ball and Arnaz's everyday lives and working ties by deconstructing our widespread familiarity of them with their TV characters.  They may play a cute and adorable mixed race couple on-air, but off-screen they're shown here as diametrically opposed from their famous sitcom counterparts (they curse up a storm, smoke, have heated battles with their writers...and themselves).  And as a singular minded woman with a vision, Ball was fiercely protective of her character and the comic hijinks that became the stuff of legend.  Every word...every movement...every reaction from her co-stars...was scrutinized by her due to her perfectionist desires.  This leads to many on the crew feeling alienated by her, not to mention that it seriously perturbs her bosses.  BEING THE RICARDOS wisely and enthrallingly illustrates the high level of dysfunction and mental anguish that existed between everyone that tried to get the I LOVE LUCY episodes out every week; it was anything by a smooth and easy process that was not aided at all by accusations of Ball's political affinities or Arnaz's potential infidelity. 

Nicole Kidman - outside of being a red head - is not really a physical dead ringer for Ball in any tangible way.  That, and in her mid-fifties the Oscar winning actress is arguably too old to authentically come across as a younger and with child Ball of the early 50s.  Kidman's transformation into Ball is assisted (albeit quite distractingly) by some garish makeup appliances that stick out in scenes more than they should.  Still, Kidman is not aiming for all-out mimicry here and instead tries to emotionally submerge herself within Ball's mind and spirit.  I was reminded here of what Anthony Hopkins brought to the table decades ago when he famously played Richard Nixon; he would never once be confused as the former president's physical double, but he attained such a level of compelling performance immersion that it helped override him not looking like the infamous Commander in Chief.  That's how I felt about Kidman's work here (and to an equally large degree Bardem's): She evokes a richly textured portrait of Ball as a passionately headstrong player in the TV landscape that knew how to play mental mind games in rooms filled with male authority figures.  Yes, Kidman doesn't look or sound like Ball at all, per se, but she captures her unending back stage poise and confidence while simultaneously showing how quickly she could turn the dial to play her famously bubbly klutz in front of camera.  Bardem is equally authoritative in his crucial role as well and, like Kidman, looks nothing like the real Arnaz (plus, he's not Cuban), but instead opts to demonstrate the intriguing layers to this savvy businessman. 

Perhaps the real star of BEING THE RICARDOS is Sorkin's trademark rat-ta-tat dialogue that shows all of these characters attempting to engage in all out verbal warfare with one another.  If you're a fanboy of the Oscar winning screenwriter's smoothly lyrical and hyper fast moving exchanges then you'll absolutely come out of BEING THE RICARDOS labeling it as another scripting triumph for him.  For me, however, I can't quite come the conclusion that this is Sorkin working in upper echelon mode.  He does make some awkward missteps here, like book ending his story with some fictional interviews with some of I LOVE LUCY's creatives that really, really comes off like actors trying to mime a faux documentary approach (Sorkin the director fumbles the ball here and his film would be much better off without these distracting vignettes).   Also, those out there expecting a broader take on Lucille Ball's life, career, and larger legacy may be struck with immediate disappointment. Still, BEING THE RICARDOS remains an imminently intoxicating examination at all of the anxieties and gambles that came with producing a hit show every seven days, and one that went on to become so influential in so many countless ways.  And the film is equally engrossing in providing a portal into a dark time in American history and for showing us the artistic genius of Ball at her peak.  Nothing - not even her husband cheating on her or the doom and gloom prospect of being wrongfully blacklisted - would derail her artistic drives.  

That's pretty astounding.

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