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Review: Being the Ricardos

January 17, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, following his Oscar-nominated courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, Being the Ricardos is a surprisingly enjoyable biopic of actress Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her real life husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), who starred alongside her as Ricky Ricardo in the classic sitcom I Love Lucy.

Sorkin’s film takes place over a particularly fraught week in the show’s production history in 1952, as the two stars face growing scandals in the media. Lucy’s past membership in the communist party has been made public by journalist Walter Winchell. Despite her being privately cleared by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the accusations threaten to destroy her position as America’s most beloved TV star if the public turns on her.

Desi assures worried producers that his wife simply “checked the wrong box” on her voter registration years earlier. After all, how could a woman married to a man who escaped the Bolsheviks in Cuba be a supporter of communism? Lucy insists that she joined the party in the 1930s as a way to honour her grandfather’s involvement in the labour movement, but has no current allegiance to them. She is more concerned by growing tabloid reports of her husband’s infidelity, with stories of his rumoured dalliances becoming front page news.

Sorkin’s screenplay counts down the days to a live taping of I Love Lucy on Friday night, that will make or break the show. To top it all off, Lucy announces that she is pregnant, putting her and Desi in a heated battle with the network to let them write her pregnancy into the story instead of hiding it. The film itself is structured around fake “interviews” with show runner Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein) and lead writers Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin) and Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox), who reflect on the events of this one week. It’s meant to give the film a sort of documentary feel, but all three figures are deceased, so it’s a choice that feels slightly manipulative.

It’s in the flashbacks to the show’s production (where Oppenheimer, Pugh, and Carroll are portrayed by Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy, respectively) that the film really comes alive. The “behind the scenes” drama also extends to growing tension between co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play Lucy and Ricky’s neighbours Fred and Ethel Mertz, but don’t get along in real life. The film shows Frawley’s drinking and Vance’s dieting becoming a concern on set, with Ball having to act as mediator. Despite his own personal dislike of communism, the gruff Frawley has her back (as he informs Arnaz, he hates communists, but hates the committee even more).

Sorkin is primarily known for his writing, and Being the Ricardos does have his usual rat-a-tat dialogue, with some of the best moments coming during the table reads and rehearsals for the show. But I still think he is a better writer than director, and the best films that have his name on them are the ones directed by other people like David Fincher (The Social Network) and Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs). While there are some handsome production design elements of the old TV studio, the film itself is not the most visually dynamic, and has somewhat of a cable movie look to it (the same could be said of Netflix movie The Trial of the Chicago 7).

The film at times feels like a miniseries squashed into a roughly two hour running time, with Sorkin also working in flashbacks to Lucy’s early career as a contract actor for RKO Radio Pictures, and how she first met Desi on set. But, some structural issues aside, Being the Ricardos is carried by its solid dialogue and performances. Kidman is good here. She is basically playing two versions of Lucille Ball, both the real person and her onscreen character, and it’s in the scenes recreating classic moments from the show that her impression becomes almost uncanny.

Bardem is an example of an actor who bears little resemblance to his real life counterpart (the Spanish actor isn’t even of the same ethnic background as the Cuban Arnaz, and is much older than he was when he played Ricky on the show), but still manages to give an interesting performance that includes singing and playing the bongo drums. Simmons and Arianda are also both standouts of the supporting cast, with their spot-on portrayals of Frawley and Vance.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the film’s trailers, but I actually enjoyed Being the Ricardos more than I thought I would. Yes it’s Oscarbait, but I found the performances engaging and there are rousing moments throughout. I used to watch old re-runs of I Love Lucy as a kid, so I was able to pick up on the references (at times it’s almost like fan service for a decades old sitcom), and I think it does a decent and entertaining job of shedding light on these behind the scenes aspects of the show’s production.

Being the Ricardos is now available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

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