Movie Review: Being the Ricardos

Nicole and Javier are great, but the film feels very Sorkin-y.

Aaron Sorkin loves many things—razor-sharp dialogue, fast-paced walk and talks, comfortingly central-left politics—but arguably the thing he loves most of all is mythologizing a Great Man. He did it on The West Wing, of course. Then again in his Steve Jobs biopic. And there have been hints of it in virtually everything else he’s done, from The Newsroom to The Social Network to The Trial of the Chicago 7. So it was surprising—and refreshing, frankly—when I found out he was doing a movie about none other than Lucille Ball, arguably the greatest comedienne of all time. Finally, he would get in the business of mythologizing a Great Woman.

Not quite.

Look, it’s clear that Sorkin admires Lucy, although when he was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter saying he didn’t think I Love Lucy was funny, I bristled: Then why make a movie about her at all? But it turns out, at least one reason Sorkin made this film was to set the record straight about Desi Arnaz so he could claim his rightful status as a Great Man.

Aye aye aye.

Let me backtrack a bit. Before I get started, I feel a need to confess. I thought the casting of Nicole Kidman as Lucy and Javier Bardem as Desi was atrocious. I was dead wrong. First, Bardem: While the somewhat fleshy Bardem really looks nothing like the lithe and light-on-his-feet Desi, he manages to channel him—his voice, his charm, his ease on stage, and his alpha male confidence. As for Nicole Kidman, how did I ever doubt her? As her career has advanced, she’s gone from being a good actress to a truly great one. I always thought there was a slightly cold and remote quality to her early work, but as she’s gotten older, she’s allowed herself to be earthier, more emotionally accessible, and more vulnerable. Her Lucy is smart, bold, determined, funny, and yes, very sexy. (Lucille Ball was sexy and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) To her credit, she’s not doing an impersonation here—she has the confidence as a performer to realize that Lucy wasn’t always on. In fact, it’s thrilling to watch her switch from Lucille Ball, the businesswoman, perfectionist, and devoted, if justifiably suspicious, wife—to Lucy, the loudmouthed, rubber-faced performer that America adored.

The supporting cast is solid, too. Once again, JK Simmons looks very little like William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, but the man was born to read Sorkin’s snappy dialogue. And Nina Arianda gives a very poignant depiction of Vivian Vance, who played Ethel. She struggled with the fact that she was meant to be frumpy compared to Lucy, that her character was married to an older man, and yet he was the one who made jokes about her appearance. As for Lucille Ball, she knew it was important for the show that Ethel not be glamorous. But it created an awkward tension between the two women, that I believe was true-to-life, even if they were good friends: If Vivian lost too much weight or put on too form-fitting a dress, Lucy vetoed it. Cruel? Perhaps. Important for the balance of the show. Undoubtedly.

Right now, I’m listening to TCM’s wonderful “The Plot Thickens” podcast about Lucille Ball, so I know a bit more about her life than I otherwise would have. I know, for example, that Sorkin jumbled the timeframe of the events in her life to raise the stakes of his screenplay. So, when we meet Lucy here, she’s grappling with three consecutive crises: She’s pregnant, at a time when network TV wouldn’t let a married couple share a bed together, let alone say the word “pregnant.” (This actually happened a bit earlier in the show’s run.) Also, the tabloids have been printing rumors of Desi’s infidelity, and while he vehemently denies such behavior, she has reason to be concerned. Finally, and most crucially, she’s embroiled in a “Red Scare.”

This was at the height of McCarthyism and the gossip columnist Walter Winchell has just dropped a bombshell on his radio show: Lucy, America’s sweetheart, is a registered communist. Turns out, this is actually true, but not quite as damning as it might seem. Lucy didn’t check the communist party box by accident, as Desi wants her to claim (she refuses to play dumb to smooth over the scandal), but did it as an homage to her communist grandfather, whom she adored. Lucy herself is fairly apolitical, but this is the kind of thing that can ruin careers—even Lucy’s.

So here’s where the Great Man stuff comes in: Without giving too much away, Sorkin allows Desi to take on this Red Scare moment, with an ingenious, ballsy public gambit. He also makes it clear that Desi is the financial mastermind behind the DesiLu company, which was certainly true, but is perhaps not the most interesting thing to focus on.

Being the Ricardos is undeniably enjoyable entertainment. It feels very rat-tat-tatty, in that Sorkin way—clever dialogue being fired off at breakneck pace. A good chunk of the action takes place in the writers’ room, where the show’s staff—including Tony Hale, Jake Lacy, and Alia Shawkat—jockey for jokes and power and Lucy’s precious approval. (There’s a somewhat flabby and unnecessary framing device that features those players’ older counterparts reflecting on the action.) And then we get this Red Scare which ratchets up the tension even more. It’s fun—particularly to see such accomplished actors embodying the roles. But it feels shallow and showy. It doesn’t dig deep. On top of being a comic genius, Lucille Ball was one of the most fascinating, complex, brilliant minds of her generation. We don’t get to learn too much about her. But hey, at least Desi gets to save the day.