Being the Ricardos, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, takes three things that happened in the lives of legendary entertainers Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and compacts them into one fictitious week. While producing an episode of their hit show I Love Lucy, Walter Winchell outs Lucy (Nicole Kidman) as a registered Communist; the tabloid Confidential publishes a story about Desi (Javier Bardem) carousing with women other than his wife; and Lucy is pregnant with her second child, something she and Desi want to include on their show, despite pregnant women being taboo on TV. This film could alternately be titled Lucy and Desi’s Big Week. But because Aaron Sorkin has never met a framing device he didn’t like, Ricardos also includes cutaways to a fake documentary in the 1990s about I Love Lucy, featuring talking-head interviews with key behind-the-scenes figures: head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale in the 1950s and John Rubinstein in the 1990s), staff writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat and Linda Lavin), and staff writer Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy and Ronny Cox). And Being the Ricardos also includes flashbacks to earlier in Lucy and Desi’s relationship, in case you didn’t think this film was doing too much.
Is it horrible? No. Is it great? No. Does it get a little hard to keep all the timelines separate? At times. Does de-aging Javier Bardem look strange and unsettling? Yep. Does Aaron Sorkin get in his own way and torpedo the better parts of his film? Oh, for sure. Are there walk-and-talks, though? Yeah! And snappy banter? Plenty of it! Is there that classic Sorkin moment when a man tells a woman How It Really Is? Buddy, there are THREE of them.
Ricardos isn’t a total loss and the biggest thing working in its favor are Kidman and Bardem, who at least aren’t trying to do impressions of Lucy and Desi. They’re not especially evocative of their famous subjects, either, but if you extracted their performances into a vacuum, they’re doing pretty good jobs, respectively. As a powerhouse creative couple who are passionately in love but also competitive, sensitive, and collapsing under the weight of their combined status and expectations, as “Lucy” and “Desi”, Kidman and Bardem are interesting and engaging (although the de-aging on Bardem is deeply weird). Kidman nails the perfectionism and driven ambition of a performer who has star power in spades, and a rare insight into her art that allows her to see possibilities and play out scenes in her head to maximum effect. And Bardem is sexy and captivating, not only believable as a live performer who figured out how to translate his power in a room with a live audience to the television format, but also a businessman who can outmaneuver any network suit. In a vacuum, they’re great.
But their performances don’t exist in a vacuum. Ricardos reminds us constantly of who Lucy and Desi are in a larger cultural context, and up against our own memories and the preserved-in-amber lifecycle of filmed entertainment, Kidman and Bardem are less successful. No, it doesn’t matter that neither of them looks anything like Lucille Ball or Desi Arnaz. But it does matter that Kidman can’t do the one thing Ball is most remembered for, which is express to great comedic effect. And Bardem is actually quite effective as Arnaz, except for how Ricardos makes us aware, like with the de-aging, that Javier Bardem Just Acting apparently wasn’t enough for the performance. (There’s also a meta-weird scene in which everyone discusses how Spanish does not equal Cuban does not equal Mexican does not equal Ecuadorean, which only serves to remind everyone that Desi Arnaz, Cuban-American Superstar, is being played by a Spaniard, which is not the same thing.)
Sorkin’s worst impulses are all here, from casting Big Name Stars despite all the ways they don’t suit their roles—Kidman and Bardem are such talented actors they ALMOST scale that mountain, but can’t quite get there—to under-lighting everything, to cutting between multiple framing devices, to scenes in which one of the men lectures one of the women about the way the world really works, including a scene in which William Frawley (JK Simmons) tells Lucy, who has been married to a Cuban man for years, what Cuban men really need. There’s good stuff here, too, especially scenes between Lucy and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who is tired of jokes being made at Ethel’s expense on the show so that Lucy can look good in comparison, and, of course, the dialogue is always the real star of any Sorkin piece.
It’s just that Sorkin has now made two (2) things about comedy behind-the-scenes, and I am still not convinced he actually likes comedy. Or understands it. He clearly likes Lucy and Desi the legends, the icons, the power couple, the businesspeople. Desi outmaneuvering the suits at CBS is top notch Sorkin stuff, and the way Lucy exerts her power on set leads to cracking good scenes. It’s just never fully convincing as “Lucy” and “Desi”, which makes me wish Sorkin had fictionalized this whole thing a la Studio 60 and not gone the biopic route. Because while I can believe I am watching Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as entertainers revolutionizing a new art form on the fly, I don’t ever buy into them as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But that’s the entire assignment and Being the Ricardos doesn’t pass.
Being the Ricardos is in select theaters from December 10 and will stream on Amazon Prime from December 21.