Being the Ricardos isn’t Aaron Sorkins’ best movie. It might not even break the top half of the dozen or so he’s written. Yet the writer-director’s sparkling biopic of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz feels like an inevitable Academy Awards contender. The old Hollywood backdrop; the self-referential musings on artistry; Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem so sharp they could draw blood — people have won more for less.
There’s just something about this lavishly produced drama that doesn’t last. While certain I Love Lucy scenes are burned in our brains, the entirety of Being the Ricardos is miraculously forgettable. It’s a good watch, well-suited to families and holiday-time nostalgics. But it isn’t transformative. You won’t walk away with a richer understanding of the couple it purports to capture, nor a particularly noteworthy cinematic experience. You might even feel like you’ve seen this movie before — though that’s not for a lack of trying to stand out.
From the first orchestral flourish of I Love Lucy’s iconic theme song, Sorkin conjures Los Angeles, 1953 with characteristic brilliance. The director’s painstaking attention to detail is matched — and, on occasion, exceeded — by Kidman and Bardem with their high-wattage stardom. There are iffy specifics (Kidman’s quiet severity, Bardem’s perplexing accent work) but the essence of Lucille and Desi is there, and the chemistry is undeniable. The pair entertain a magnetic love-hate dynamic, even as they face the greatest controversy of their careers.
Told across five days, Being the Ricardos renders a portrait of I Love Lucy’s remarkably rocky history through the lens of a single episode’s creation. Accusations of communism and infidelity plague the unprecedentedly popular sitcom in a fever pitch of political angling and showbiz gossip. The semi-fictional scandal is a hyper-condensed version of what actually happened to the television sweethearts.
Their fight to save the show by showtime drives the movie’s action from table-read to a performance in front of a live studio audience. The scenes in between serve as a sort of guided tour through Lucille and Desi’s more troubled moments, spanning decades. Flashing back and forth between the duo’s courtship and their present PR crises paints a zippy portrait of a power couple on the rocks. The warring sensibilities of the fiery comedienne and her bandleader husband fuel theatrical arguments that harken to Sorkin’s stage play past. It’s never especially toxic (though Sorkin’s own allegedly abusive behavior on sets seems almost excused by his self-aggrandizing rendition of Lucille Ball.) But it is compellingly passionate with Kidman and Bardem chewing through the text like paper shredders being fed old scripts.
“It is compellingly passionate with Kidman and Bardem chewing through the text like paper shredders being fed old scripts.
In the orbit of that captivating catastrophe, William Frawley (a pitch-perfect J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (a spectacular Nina Arianda) battle on the sidelines as the discontented supporting players behind Fred and Ethel. They’ve got issues with each other, as well as Lucille and Desi. Simultaneously, writers Madelyn Pugh (a scene-stealing Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (an underused Jake Lacy) vie for recognition on set, as head writer and producer Jess Oppenheimer (a revelatory Tony Hale) worries over the cast and crew’s collective fate.
Through all these characters and conflicts emerge a reasonable message: Things aren’t always what they seem, even in the picture-perfect world of 1950s Hollywood. It’s a moral we’ve learned before — see Pleasantville, Trumbo, or Hail, Caesar! — but with a finer point put on the absurdity of keeping up appearances in a romantic context.
Sorkin’s fondness for overlapping dialogue serves him well as an uber-realistic contrast to the stilted speech of the black-and-white sitcom world. Elements of the beloved TV show are recreated for Being the Ricardos, but they’re not played for comedy. Instead, they’re used to illustrate the internal life of Lucille Ball, emphasizing the duality of Lucy and Ricky versus Lucille and Desi. Although, it should be said, seeing Kidman roll around in grapes is decently entertaining. Concerns that she couldn’t “do” comedy prove to be largely unfounded.
Still, for all the fascinating facts and clever polish, Being the Ricardos never rises to the point of feeling properly real. The story doesn’t organically arise so much as it systematically progresses, with every second of its bloated two-hour and 11-minute run-time adding to its already considerable burden. Being the Ricardos looks like it took back-breaking work to make — in stark contrast to the mesmerizing ease with which I Love Lucy presented itself. What’s more, Sorkin makes narrative choices that come across as more structurally integral than emotionally honest, and even the most well-acted characters suffer.
Read More: Spider-Man: Homeless Day Movie