Lucille Ball, as depicted in Being The Ricardos, is a lot like Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs, Molly Bloom in Molly’s Game, Abbie Hoffman in The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, etc. Which is to say, a genius in her field whose uncompromising nature made her somewhat prickly and occasionally difficult to be around. Which is further to say: Aaron Sorkin does his Aaron Sorkin thing in Being The Ricardos, turning a public figure into an Aaron Sorkin sock puppet. When Aaron Sorkin dances with a famous character, Aaron Sorkin don’t change. Aaron Sorkin changes that character.
It’s not that this is especially unentertaining; the man always writes with a certain snappy rhythm that has become his trademark. It’s just that most of us have seen this movie before and we don’t get much from it that we haven’t already gotten from his other movies. One’s enjoyment of Aaron Sorkin movies at this point seems to have an inverse correlation with how many other Aaron Sorkin movies one has seen and remembers.
The central failure of Being The Ricardos is that it never offers us a sense of why Sorkin wanted to tell this story in the first place, other than that it offered the opportunity to apply “the formula.” Nicole Kidman plays the famous comedienne, beneath a mound of makeup and facial prosthetics that make her look a little like Robin Williams in Robert Altman’s Popeye movie. All that window dressing gives Lucy a Madame Tussaud’s quality, which tends to thwart any significant emotional attachment. Gee, would you look at that? Nicole Kidman SORTA looks like Lucille Ball when you squint from drunkenness!
The opening frame of the story is that there are two potentially damaging articles about to break (Aaron Sorkin loves impending bombshell articles): one about how Lucille Ball had been questioned by the House Unamerican Activities Committee about her affiliation with the Communist party; and another about how her husband Desi Arnaz liked to frequent prostitutes.
Of course, Lucy and Desi, business partners as well as spouses, also had to do a show to do that week. And Lucy’s only solution to the strife in her personal life was to absolutely nail it. This is the period during which the movie takes place, rehearsals for that week’s shoot, with the bombshell articles hanging over Lucy’s head, with frequent flashbacks to her earlier career illustrating how we got there. Places, people! Lucy gotta think about her WHOLE LIFE before we do this show!
The single biggest surprise of the movie is Javier Bardem’s weirdly compelling portrayal of Desi Arnaz. On paper, he seems like by far the worst casting, Bardem’s craggy face, baritone voice, and Easter Island bone structure an odd fit for the slick and boyish Desi Arnaz. Yet in practice, Bardem’s expressive face is oddly suited for externalizing Desi’s feelings, precisely in the way Kidman’s makeup is not. His voice also gives Desi’s songs a pleasing basso depth and the accent never feels like a gimmick. Bardem shows what stories about Desi would otherwise probably have to tell: that he was this incredibly charismatic masculine sex symbol.
JK Simmons is great as the gruff and curmudgeonly William Frawley (aka Fred Mertz), though in a much more expected way, as is Nina Arianda as the show’s perennially overshadowed middle sibling, Vivian Vance, aka Ethel. Sorkin scripts are always a gift to veteran scene chewers. The bigger issue is that after 125 minutes of movie, all we really get out of it is that Lucille Ball was an uncompromising perfectionist when it came to comedy, the most cursory, dull read on the material possible. Wow, you mean to tell me she was good because she practiced hard and cared a lot? Why doncha write a book about it, Malcolm Gladwell!
In a story that uses a political story as its central framing device, Sorkin’s politics are, as always, convoluted, slightly opaque, and most centrally, essentially shallow power worship. Why did Lucy register as a communist back in the thirties? Even Sorkin seems to know that the official story, that Lucy did it as a favor to her favorite grandpa, a committed leftist, almost certainly isn’t the whole one. At one point she says it was because he was “fighting for the little guy.” Desi pushes back on this point. “The ‘little guy!'” he scoffs. “these are the people who chased me out of my home!”
There’s a lot to unpack there: if you didn’t know the timeline, that I Love Lucy‘s heyday was in the 1950s, you could be forgiven for thinking that Desi Arnaz’s family was chased out by Castro when he took power in 1959, and not by the more politically complicated Cuban Revolution of 1933, which overthrew Machado and installed a provisional government that itself quickly gave way to Cuba’s next dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Did Desi Arnaz (whose family was very wealthy before their property was confiscated) simply conflate all revolutions with Bolshevism? Or was that just the infamously uniform-worshipping Sorkin’s own simplification? There’s a lot of political chaff being thrown in Being The Ricardos, but mostly it seems to boil down to Sorkin’s evergreen political perspective on everything: “shut up and let the adults handle it.”
Sorkin’s theatrical contrivances work much better in handling the other article hanging over Lucy’s head, the one about Desi’s infidelity. There’s a scene in which Lucy confronts Desi with his lipstick smeared handkerchief, that works better than just about every other scene in the movie. Trouble is, it only comes in the last five minutes of the film. The infidelity issue gets about 90 seconds worth of exploration, in what seems more like cursory exposition.
Which makes you wonder, again, what are we doing here? We seem to be doing the same old Aaron Sorkin thing, and in the absence of any meaningful expansion of his skill set, that thing has become defined by increasingly diminishing returns.
Amazon Studios will release ‘Being The Ricardos’ in theaters on December 10, 2021, available globally on Prime Video December 21, 2021. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.