By: Joseph Hillyard
View all Joseph Hillyard's works
Grade: 2.5 stars out of 5
Early into Being The Ricardos, writer/director Aaron Sorkin, a man whose style has become so ubiquitous that even mentioning it has become a cliche, signals to the audience that this is going to be different than his other biographical offerings. Whereas Molly’s Game and The Social Network impart their seriousness and weighty subject matter from the get go, Being The Ricardos earliest moments are infused with an undercurrent of wry humor.
After a brief intro where a fictional documentary interviews older versions of the characters, Sorkin jumps straight into the story proper where we see glimmers of the engaging back and forth dialog he’s famous for. We open on Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) interrogating her husband/collaborator Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) about his alleged infidelity, the two going between arguing and reaffirming their love for one another. However, Desi’s fidelity or lack thereof is the least of her problems after radio personality Walter Winchell accuses Lucy of being a communist, an accusation that could destroy her career. We then cut to a tense I Love Lucy cast reading where Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Fawley (J.K. Simmons) humorously bicker over the anti-communist fervor gripping Hollywood as well as express their general dislike for each other. Setting up the major storylines that will occupy the next two hours of the film’s runtime. These opening moments promise a witty, thoughtful reinvention of biopic trappings and a nuanced exploration of the lives of two of America’s most beloved entertainers, however like most things in Being The Ricardos it fails to pay off.
Despite this being Sorkin’s third time in the director’s chair after The Trial of The Chicago Seven (another movie that bit off more than it could chew), the film gives the impression that he’s still on training wheels. It jumps from subplot to subplot without a clear sense of direction or tension until it all abruptly comes together during the final act. There are two hypothetical storylines, the fracturing relationship between Lucy and Desi and the potential consequences of the allegations of communism against Lucy, but Sorkin’s script ultimately can’t decide which to focus on and bungles them both.
Take the latter storyline for example, although the script constantly tells us that Lucy being associated with communists could hurt her career (Lucy’s grandpa Fred was a devoted socialist and asked her to register with the communist party in the 1930s as a favor, despite her having no intention of actually being a party member) but the audience isn’t properly told why. The words “blacklist” or “red scare” aren’t even spoken and members of the audience who are unfamiliar with that part of Hollywood history aren’t likely to understand the potential consequences of HUAC’s investigation. This should be a major source of tension, however in Sorkin’s hands it feels like another box on his checklist before jumping to the next underdeveloped plot point.
This slapdash approach to plot development can also be seen in the depiction of Desi and Lucy’s marriage. We see their “meet cute” on the set of the musical Too Many Girls during Lucy’s RKO years, followed by their early career and marital struggles in the lead up to I Love Lucy. These flashback sequences range from disposable to being too short to really hold any dramatic weight, contributing to the underdeveloped characterizations. Lucy the ambitious actress/comedian trying to catch a break and Desi the charismatic, philandering Cuban bandleader. The result is that while we get a broad sense of who Lucy and Desi are as individuals we fail to see them as collaborators and the team behind one of America’s most beloved comedies.
Neither Kidman or Bardem fully settle into their roles, not helped by the uneven script and some painful I Love Lucy recreations that only serve to highlight their lack of comedy experience. Both have their moments, Kidman shines during the flashback sequences depicting Lucy and Desi early courtship and Bardem pulls off the musical sequences surprisingly well, but both fail to escape the feeling they’re giving thinly sketched impressions of icons. Of the supporting cast Nina Arianda makes for a fine if underwritten Vivian Vance (aka “Ethel”) and J.K. Simmons is clearly having fun as the famously curmudgeonly William Fawley (aka “Fred”).
Being the Ricardos is not a total misfire, the costumes and production design are quite good. It’s clear that Sorkin has a clear passion for the subject matter, a few brief moments hinting at the film that could have been before becoming consumed with its own self-importance. In the end, you’re left with another disposable biopic that outside of award season won’t linger in the public consciousness for long.