Written and directed by Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin, Being the Ricardos follows Lucy (Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnez (Academy Award winner Javier Bardem) as they face a potentially career-ending crisis while also struggling with their marriage. It takes place over the course of one “scary week” in which Lucy was publicly accused of being a Communist, a potential death knell for the career of any actor in Hollywood in the 1950s.
Playing Lucille Ball is a daunting challenge for any actress, and making a film about I Love Lucy is an ambitious project for anyone to take on considering how popular the television show was when it first aired and how beloved it remains today. Unfortunately, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Sorkin show that they aren’t up to the task.
The issue is that Lucy actually was registered as a Communist when she signed up to vote, as a nod to the socialist grandfather who helped raise her. But she and Desi must try to keep that story out of the press, whilst also preparing to film Season 2, Episode 4 of I Love Lucy. Being the Ricardos follows the couple through each day of the week as they muddle through despite the myriad of problems they’re facing.
In addition to the political, the film also tracks Lucy and Desi’s personal relationship issues during this week as they continually fight, largely over newspaper accusations of Desi’s infidelity. (One article asks “Does Desi love Lucy loosely?”) There are also extended flashbacks to the couple meeting and the early years of their relationship, as they try to navigate being two performers on very different schedules. These flashbacks felt like largely unnecessary background information and distractions from the actual plot, as they didn’t add anything to their romance that couldn’t be grasped from the 1950s sections.
What’s more interesting is seeing how Lucy contributes to the television show, from fighting with director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham) to restaging scenes. From the first moments of the table read of the episode, Lucy is meticulously picking apart lines and proving that she has a better grasp of comedy and what the audience wants than anyone else.
Sorkin plays around with structure in several ways and some of these are effective, while others feel like they’re simply taking up time that could have been better used. Lucy imagining scenes for I Love Lucy, in black and white as we’re used to seeing them, as they are being read and rehearsed, is a fantastic bit of flair. It helps link the movie with the famous show that it depicts and gives us the opportunity to see Kidman recreate some famous moments. Less successful are the talking head interviews with older versions of executive producer Jess Oppenheimer and writers Bob Carrol Jr. and Madelyn Pugh, which seem to belong in a different movie that actually plays more on the mockumentary concept, rather than partially committing to it.
The greatest weakness of Being the Ricardos is that there’s far too much going on in the script for any of the themes to be properly developed. On top of their political and relationship issues, Lucy and Desi tell the television executives that they’re pregnant, and there’s a power struggle in the writers’ room with the one female writer (excellently played by Alia Shawkat) feuding with the male writer (Jake Lacy) over who gets credit for the best ideas. We also see the planning for several episodes in advance, seemingly to give a reason for Kidman to do a less-than-funny imitation of the show’s famous grape-stomping scene. Perhaps, Sorkin was piling on all of these plotlines to try to stress how much Lucy was going through, but it just seems tedious for the audience to keep track of.
J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda’s portrayals of William Frawley and Vivian Vance, best known for playing Fred and Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, are highlights of the film. They’re excellent on their own, but their bickering together in the scenes that they share is fantastic. Simmons is delightfully grumpy as the ornery William, a former vaudeville and Broadway actor who was already seasoned in the industry when he took on the role of Fred, but the scene in which he tries to give Lucy advice about her relationship is genuinely touching. The plotline about Vivian’s resentment of the role of Ethel and her desire to appear more glamorous is one of the more intriguing side plots of the film, but never feels fully developed though Arianda does an excellent job bringing it to life.
Kidman is a very talented actress and she does a great job with the dramatic scenes, showing how Lucy is affected by Desi’s straying eye and how she has had to fight her way to success in the entertainment industry. However, she doesn’t succeed in capturing the magic of Lucille Ball’s comedic genius and many of the comedy scenes fall flat. It’s a risk to have any actress try to recreate direct scenes from I Love Lucy and these often only highlight that Kidman doesn’t have the comedic timing or hilarious facial expressions that Ball did.
There’s no denying that Javier Bardem gives a great performance, whether he’s singing “Babalu” in a nightclub or using his commanding presence to take charge of a meeting. He doesn’t quite capture Desi’s energy or presence, but the performance is impressive enough that it could be overlooked if his casting itself wasn’t an issue. However, the strong emphasis on Desi’s Cuban heritage and how it affects his position in the industry makes the casting of the Spanish actor feel wrong, particularly as Lucy actually corrects a TV executive who refers to Desi as Spanish in one scene. No matter how good Bardem is as Desi, it’s clear that he should have been played by an actor of Cuban descent, particularly since his ethnicity plays a large role in the plot.
Being the Ricardos is adequately made, but isn’t anything special or remarkable for a Sorkin film from an editing or cinematography perspective. The period costume and production design are lovely, particularly the outfits for Lucy and Vivian which beautifully recreate the silhouettes of the 1950s. It’s notable that Lucy is often seen wearing pants in the film, unusual for a period piece like this, which is seemingly a hint to her independent and business-oriented attitude. The recreated I Love Lucy set is so fun for anyone who has watched the show that it’s a shame it’s not featured more to allow the details of it to be appreciated.
Being the Ricardos is bogged down by Sorkin’s messy script even if he does have the occasional sort of quippy line that we’ve come to expect from him as a writer. It attempts to address too many themes and plotlines, which results in none of them feeling fully fleshed out. Despite casting issues, the actors are the highlight of the film, particularly Simmons and Adriana who come to the rescue every time it starts to become unengaging. While Bardem and Kidman do a solid job of showing a couple trying to overcome both personal and professional challenges in the 1950s entertainment industry, they never do fully become the Ricardos.
Being the Ricardos will have a limited theatrical release by Amazon Studios exclusively in the United States on December 10, 2021, prior to streaming globally on Prime Video on December 21, 2021.
Photo: Glen Wilson / Amazon