It isn’t hyperbole to say that I Love Lucy is one of, if not the, best television comedy of all time.
The trials and wacky tribulations of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the lovey-dovey 50s couple, played by real-life spouses Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, defined the developing medium and was a staple of syndicated television for generations afterward. Lucille Ball was at the center of this cultural phenomenon, an extraordinary master of physical and visual comedy, whose wildly-animated expressions are sewn into what was once a homogeneous pop culture landscape.
A half-century-plus of distance and a broader understanding of comedy, celebrity, politics, and their intersecting points warrant a reappraisal of Lucille Ball’s influence on entertainment, at least according to writer-director Aaron Sorkin. Being the Ricardos is his attempt, diving into a uniquely tenuous production week of I Love Lucy. The show is perilously close to collapse, thanks to several impending crises: Lucille’s (Nicole Kidman) alleged Communist ties, Desi’s (Javier Bardem) alleged infidelity, and Lucille’s pregnancy, which the couple insists on writing into the show in an era where it was inconceivable to say the word “pregnant” on television. The controversies take their toll on everyone, but especially Lucille. She manifests her concern by questioning seemingly-minute details of every joke and setup because she understands that even the tiniest mistake could end everything.
Lucille Ball’s innate self-awareness is Being the Ricardos’ most compelling insight into the entertainment legend. Whether people realize it or not, she is frequently the most intelligent person in the room, quietly calculating the costs and rewards of any given situation. Aaron Sorkin and Nicole Kidman are best in these moments, crafting a solid case for her comedic genius, razor-sharp intelligence, and unyielding tenacity, both in her personal and professional life. It is fascinating to see Lucille imagining a scene in her head, tweaking sight gags and jokes, and challenging the cast and crew when she thinks the comedy isn’t working. For those unfamiliar with her work and persona, you might assume that Lucille was merely a talented actress who landed a life-changing role. The film, especially Sorkin’s incisive screenplay, insists she was so much more than that.
Unfortunately, Sorkin nearly buries that narrative thread beneath the rubble of an incomprehensible structure and a pointless framing device. Being the Ricardos is designed as a documentary, with present-day versions of the crew offering unnecessary context. They say nothing that the actual scenes couldn’t have conveyed, and every cut to those interviews are superfluous momentum killers. Just as ineffective are the flashbacks within the flashbacks, which detail the early days of Lucille and Desi’s relationship. There is no real rhyme or rhythm to how these scenes fit into the overall narrative, and while there are some nuggets worth digging into, they further sap urgency or energy from the story. At times, it isn’t clear what we should be taking away from the film, and the answer doesn’t fully coalesce until the second half of the final act, where Lucille lays out the source of her dismay. It does click into place, but it’s disappointing that we have to endure 105 minutes of mess to get there.
Being the Ricardos has been intensely scrutinized over its casting, specifically whether Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem could truly bring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez to life. Again, enough time has passed where interpretation can replace pantomime, and both Kidman and Bardem create compelling approximations of who Lucille and Desi might’ve been off-stage. Kidman’s sharp, thoughtful performance reveals to us a powerful woman driven by professional ambition and deep love who is wise enough to understand how precarious it is for both to co-exist. Bardem looks less than nothing like Desi, but he’s got more than enough of that swooning charm and quiet ferocity to offset the physical gaps. The supporting cast is great by having less iconic personas to live up to, but Nina Arianda stands out as Vivian Vance, who played Ethel in I Love Lucy. Arianda nearly steals the film as she quietly and then openly resents playing second fiddle to Lucille, adding some sorely-needed dramatic fire.
Lucille Ball exists in a special place in popular culture, a frequent and widespread reference point for anyone remotely interested in comedy. Sorkin clearly admires her, imagining her as a gifted artist and shrewd businesswoman who combined both to conceive one of the most enduring pieces of television ever. Being the Ricardos fails to truly convey Lucille’s unique qualities, losing her within baffling and uninspired directorial choices. While his script and Kidman’s performance keep the film from irredeemability, Sorkin does something unthinkable: he makes the story of Lucille Ball boring.