“I Love Lucy” is one of the most beloved television series of all time, and for good reason. The sitcom, which ran from 1951 to 1957, utilized an ensemble cast to find humor in everyday situations, from domestic squabbles to career struggles. Besides its critical and popular acclaim—“I Love Lucy” was the most-watched TV show in the United States for four of its six seasons, and is the rare show to end its run at the top of Nielsen ratings—“I Love Lucy” played an integral role in the development of the sitcom as we know it, from the format of its episodes to the way those episodes were produced. “I Love Lucy” pioneered the three-camera format for filming in front of a live audience (still standard practice today), and used recordings of live audience reactions as opposed to a canned laugh track. And in the show’s second season, it did what at the time was considered unthinkable: allowed its protagonist, pregnant with her second child in real life, to be pregnant on-screen. Many people contributed to the massive success of “I Love Lucy,” but it’s safe to divert a lot of that credit to two people: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the real life couple who played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on the show and also served as series producers. They’re the subject of Aaron Sorkin’s latest effort as both writer and director, “Being the Ricardos,” but this biopic crams so many of Lucy and Desi’s accomplishments and scandals into such a short time frame, it minimizes their impact.
In “Being the Ricardos,” Sorkin condenses three major events that in real life occurred over the space of a few years into the space of one week in the early 1950s, during production of the “I Love Lucy” episode titled “Fred and Ethel Fight.” Between table reads, rehearsals, and finally the filming of the actual episode, Ball is accused of being a communist by broadcaster Walter Winchell, finds out that she is pregnant and that the series will have to be rearranged accordingly, and discovers in a tabloid expose that her supposedly beloved husband may be cheating on her—all while starring and producing in the most popular piece of American entertainment. That’s a lot for any woman to go through, but when you’re also the most recognizable celebrity in the country and having to deal with male directors, writers, and producers who don’t have your best interests at heart? That’s a whole other beast, and one that Sorkin proves to be ill-equipped to confront. Despite being faced with numerous personal and professional issues, “Being the Ricardos” curiously remains on the outside, never really digging in to Ball’s thoughts and feelings beyond the big girl-boss persona she presents to the world. We hear a lot about Ball from those around her—an odd documentary-style framing device has older incarnations of those who worked with her on “I Love Lucy” reflecting back on this week and what they perceived Ball was going through—but not so much from herself.
There are a few times when “Being the Ricardos” approaches something close to introspection, namely in the scenes that depict Ball’s creative process, which could either be viewed as meticulous genius or extreme micromanager, depending on your position. There are gags in the episode they are working on that don’t feel right to Ball, and much to the chagrin of the writers, director, and her costars, she goes over it again and again, refusing to move on until they get it right. In these scenes, Sorkin cuts between what is happening in the present and how Ball envisions the episode playing in her mind, going from color to black-and-white, even imagining the audience reacting. Her particular obsession with getting a scene between her and Arnaz, and later a tense scene between Fred (William Frawley, played by J.K. Simmons) and Ethel (Vivian Vance, played by Nina Arianda) right nicely mirrors her concerns surrounding her own potentially crumbling marriage. Nicole Kidman, who plays Ball, may not have been perfect casting, but she does delineate nicely between Ball’s on and off screen persona; in these visions of the episode playing out, her seemingly frigid features become more elastic, her voice more shrill, everything about her personality more exaggerated to transform her from Lucille Ball to Lucy Ricardo. The same could be same for Javier Bardem, who plays Desi. Even more miscast than Kidman—Bardem is Spanish and Arnaz was Cuban-American, prompting a lot of negative feedback surrounding Sorkin’s apparent disregard for casting the proper ethnicity—Bardem can still be relied on to turn in a decent performance. The film only briefly touches on the racism Arnaz faced in Hollywood; initially, producers didn’t want to cast him as Ball’s husband in “I Love Lucy,” feeling that audiences wouldn’t buy a Cuban man as the husband of a white woman (Ball refused to participate in the show otherwise). Bardem plays up his accent a bit in the scenes where he plays Desi playing Ricky, implying the need at the time to create a stereotype that predominantly white audiences could feel that they could buy in to. The supporting cast, however, stand out more than the leads do. None of them really look like their real-life counterparts, but that’s okay; Simmons nails Frawley’s slouching posture and walk. Arianda is really great (her facial expressions and manner of speaking let us in on what Vance is going through more than any of the others characters do) and there’s an interesting dynamic established between the film’s female characters: Ball, Vance, and Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), one of the writers on “I Love Lucy.” They pressure each other much more than they support each other in a way that I think somewhat reflects reality and the desire to be seen, and somewhat reflects the strong male gaze behind “Being the Ricardos” (Sorkin also manufactures a rivalry between Ball and Rita Hayworth and Judy Holliday that there’s no evidence ever existed, for no other reason than added dramatic effect). And the storylines involving Vance and Frawley, brief though they are, just add to the pile of items that “Being the Ricardos” tries and fails to juggle within its 125 minute runtime.
Bardem and Kidman are fine together, although I wouldn’t say that sparks fly between them the way so many have described Ball and Arnaz’s chemistry in real life. Sorkin utilizes flashbacks throughout the film to detail the beginning of their relationship and their early career struggles leading up to the creation of “I Love Lucy,” and it’s in these scenes where he also attempts to introduce another concept for Ball: the idea that she really just wants a home. But again, this idea isn’t probed more fully, or carried to fruition over the course of the film; it’s just something interesting that Ball says to Arnaz before moving on. There’s also a manufactured look to this entire film, but especially the flashback scenes, that is ugly and unappealing. Kidman and Bardem’s faces have an airbrushed look that, when viewed in tandem with a script that refuses to get to know them beyond a surface level, causes them to feel like they aren’t real people.
Those familiar with Sorkin’s writing will find some of his signature sharp humor throughout the film, and he clearly brings his experience with behind-the-scenes dramas to this story. But like his previous efforts in the director’s chair, there’s a flatness to his direction that gives the film an aesthetic that is at best generic, and at worst hideous and dull. I don’t know that “Being the Ricardos” would have fared much better had Sorkin stuck to solely writing it; the story is still too bloated, the characters too shallow, and the artistic licenses he takes actually makes the reality less intriguing. But it couldn’t have been much worse.
“Being the Ricardos” is now playing in theaters, and will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning December 21. Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated R.