Full disclosure: For as much of a retro sitcom enthusiast as I’d been up until a mass viewing exodus in college, I was never a fan of I Love Lucy. Even with the revolutionary legacy it built for itself in six seasons, and several continuations, the newfound television audience’s first successful glimpse at the humorous foibles of modern life was a bit too simplistic for my tastes. The vintage Hollywood story buried underneath the surface allure, behind the cameras, and below the audience bleachers does more than enough to answer back, and pose a heightened round of necessary quirk with its unexpected controversy. In Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, fans and casual observers are likely to find the same experience, not finding much in the way of slander or mudslinging. Dirt being rattled from the earth, more like, as inter-office politics and outside factors collide with each other within the span of a week.
It’s the autumn of 1952, Lucy has taken off to possess every American with a television in its spell on Monday nights, and production on season two is in full force. For lead star Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), and her husband/co-star/executive producer Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), “power couple” is more than a mere self-appointed title. The clout they had built as husband and wife (which Sorkin covers in a myriad of cutaways), Desi a popular nightclub bandleader, Lucille a burned out film star in search of a newer challenge, is nothing short of palpable and frustrating. The latter in particular, to just about everyone in their circle. And that thread only looks to unravel upon itself when rumors of infidelity on Desi’s behalf, news of Lucille’s first pregnancy, and a bombshell reveal branding her a communist all hit the fan during a week’s production.
Five days of insanity from script to tape night with a full audience, as Lucy confronts her misguided past to set up a steadier future. And we hear from (less than) supportive individuals on both sides: advertisers, network execs, former bosses, exhausted showrunner Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), and hotshot writers like Madelyn (Alia Shawkat) and Bob (Jake Lacy), all of whom attempting to dodge Lucy and Des’s fervor while opening up her playing field on stage for growing creative control. A very rocky path, but when has Sorkin ever been known for an easygoing story? Once more Aaron is in his element, not too lost after last year’s Trial of the Chicago 7. Again, he hits a major groove in a strong ensemble with quick-witted dialogue and mild historical context. All to uncover the veil of a famed entertainment icon at her peak, merging the mundane of a typical day’s work with those speckles of deviation, regardless of size.
The first act is perhaps a bit shakier than we’d typically see out of Sorkin, establishing its crackerjack cadence of inessential fictional interviews, flashbacks and intense backstage spats. Be it refining a scene for improved comic effect, battling with CBS bosses over the implications of incorporating a pregnancy as a season arc, or a mild confidence shortfall for co-star Vivian Vance (a jovial, electric Nina Arianda). Sorkin does needlessly suck up a lot of captive energy establishing these rhythms just so the story runs seamlessly. Eventually we get there, but with time effectively overspent. Such is the rigor of creative entertainment; there will be stumbles along the way to establish your endgame, and Sorkin recognized that all too well in his assignment
Not that it affects Kidman’s natural, purely subtle portrayal of Lucy. No significant gimmicks beyond maybe some mannerism training. It’s all her own cognition and drives serving as fuel while reeling in her set pieces and co-stars to negate clear signs of dysfunction. Miss Ball was evidently passionate with her eye for comedy, a built-up defense mechanism after many a missed opportunity in the drama realm. And Kidman knows just how to latch onto that crusade, most notably making a kindred spirit out of elder statesman and off-screen alcoholic William Frawley (an ebullient J.K. Simmons).
The very idea of past communist ties, minimal at best, does infuse an added layer of humility as small clouds of doubt plague her. And particularly, her affirmed chemistry with Desi. If only Bardem gave in more of his A-game, however. Not that he is a lousy Desi; when his focus is tightened, he’ll run for the roses while showboating. He and Kidman possess a few ignited sparks when in the same frame, more so with those flashbacks. But alone, it’s an awkward fit, as he could not match the flighty vocal timbre Mr. Arnaz worked with in real life. That may only be a small quarrel, but what Bardem accomplishes is serviceable, though not spectacular.
Simmons and Arianda are almost underutilized in taking on the nuanced, unified brain cell of Vance and Frawley. But they still play quite well off of each other while offering more ground for Kidman. Overall, the sense of masculinity is no less under threat with Lucy and Viv at the strings, Des and his superiors taking clear notice. I only wish Sorkin could’ve leaned on that angle as much as that nefarious tabloid scandal maintaining the dramatic tension like baited breath on ice. One of several missed opportunities which thankfully don’t add up to an overwhelming migraine of regret. It’s all acceptably glossed over through that classical Hollywood style, emphasized through Jeff Cronenweth’s (A Million Little Pieces) broad-scope cinematography, and Daniel Pemberton’s (The Rescue) sweeping sense of musical identity.
Whatever counter-productive faults spring up, Sorkin quickly makes up lost ground in his focusing solely on Lucy, her quest for retribution, her marital inadequacies, and her honest comedic vision. That alone saved my experience with Being the Ricardos from completely derailing sight unseen. It does cast a wide net covering all its bases, but eventually when the core of its story taps in, it is an emotionally charged expression. With Kidman’s faithful, if not also a tad flexible, visage holding firm behind the wheel, it’s tough not to settle for anything beyond a subtle brilliance. More than inhabiting a screen icon, her Lucy is an embodiment of 50s empowerment whose echoes are still ringing quite loudly. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Being the Ricardos opens in select theaters (several locations across Seattle and points beyond) December 10, streaming on Prime Video December 21; rated R for language; 131 minutes.