Film Review – Being the Ricardos
Being The Ricardos
Through the 1950s, few television shows were as big as I Love Lucy. Viewers tuned in every week to see real life couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz navigate the hijinks of marriage. Even today, “Lucy and Ricky” are referenced as one of the classic pop culture couples. In Being the Ricardos (2021), we learn that the real commotion took place behind the scenes. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the film follows Ball and Arnaz as they push through a turbulent week in the production of a single episode. Throughout, they are saddled with creative bickering, government inquiries, and marital strife – all while trying to be funny.
Not only is it difficult to produce a sitcom, it’s very hard to produce a successful one. The pressure to write, rehearse, perfect, and perform in front of an audience week in and week out must be tremendous. Sorkin’s script frames the narrative during a week of initial script reading, camera blocking, dress rehearsal, and taping. As usual, Sorkin provides his unique flair for rapid fire dialogue. It’s a constant high wire act, with the writers and showrunner (Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Tony Hale) pitching the episode’s storyline with Lucille (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) questioning every single joke and pratfall. This is especially true for Lucille, whom we see as a near obsessive perfectionist. For her, every action must have a reason, every punchline must have a purpose. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography will occasionally shift to black and white, articulating how Lucille sees scenes playing out in her mind.
The creative process is where Lucille expresses her control, and she holds onto that with a vice-like grip. This contrasts with the rest of her and Desi’s life, which appears to be unraveling at the seams. During this time in 1952, the pair was saddled with several problems. HUAC investigations over Lucille’s communist ties, an unexpected pregnancy, and rumors of Desi’s infidelities all hung over them like an ominous cloud. With the number of spinning plates, there is a kind of screwball quality to how the two confronted each issue. Everything comes at them in a rotating door of challenges. It reminded me of that classic episode where Lucy gets overwhelmed by chocolates on a conveyor belt – it’s a lot to handle.
Sorkin balances the chaos by flashing back to the early stages of Lucille and Desi’s relationship – meeting on the set of a movie and their subsequent romance. These scenes act as a counterpoint to the present day. When Lucille met Desi, he was the star and she was the struggling actress. While Desi was performing in nightclubs around the country to adoring fans, Lucille was back in Los Angeles losing her contract with RKO and toiling in radio. Sorkin indicates that the success of I Love Lucy was both a blessing and a curse for the couple. Where Lucille shot to stardom, Desi’s star simmered. Singing to packed venues was replaced by debates with executives over Lucille’s pregnancy or if they should go public with the HUAC investigations. When Lucille turns to him to get his opinion on a scene, it comes off as her simply throwing him a bone. We begin to suspect that whatever deceit he’s involved with may stem from his own loss of control.
Nicole Kidman does not look like Lucille Ball, and the heavy make up only amplifies this notion. However, she does translate Lucille’s essence, from the genius of her comedic chops to her very serious demeanor behind the scenes. Although Lucille’s on-screen persona is played up for goofy laughs, she treated the character with laser focus. Javier Bardem exudes the charm that drew many fans to Desi, Lucille included. During flashback scenes, Bardem sings and plays the drums with enthusiasm and vigor – he walks with a swagger that lets us know how much he enjoys the limelight. This helps magnify his feelings later. Being of Cuban descent, Desi knew that his options for fame were limited. Although he never says it out loud, we suspect that the love he had for Lucille and her success also came with an underlying resentment.
The supporting cast all leave a strong impression. As Vivian Vance and William Frawley, Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons garner the biggest laughs as the wisecracking duo. They hurl insults at one another like hot cakes, showing that their annoyance with one another worked well behind the camera as it did in front of it. But the writing and direction balances their infighting with strong dramatic moments, allowing them to display full range of their emotions beyond simply being the comedic sidekicks. Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, and Tony Hale are all very good as the writing team that must butt heads with the stars daily. They write episodes, suggest notes, take criticisms, and make changes on the fly. Having to do their jobs and appeasing the stars at the same time must have been like tip toeing around a minefield.
Sorkin maintains the multiple plotlines though most of the runtime but has trouble wrapping them up at the end. Tying so many loose strings in the third act is a daunting task, and the tone and pacing quickens just to get to the finish line. The closing scenes are the most problematic, as the narrative goes through a laundry list of parallel stories and checking each off one at a time. Lucille and Desi will deal with the government in one room, walk into another, and then discuss their marriage problems right away. The execution is erratic, like a juggler keeping too many balls in the air and simply deciding to drop them all to the ground. Although the film centers on a specific time in Lucille and Desi’s life instead of taking a traditional biopic approach, it’s still burdened with a lot of elements. The overall picture does not work as well as the individual pieces.
The strength of the performances carry Being the Ricardos above its structure and plotting. Seeing the characters collaborate and adapt with one another was fun to watch. In the middle of it all was a relationship that could not contain its individual ambitions. How they kept this tightrope act going for so long is mindboggling to think about. And yet the show went on to have an everlasting legacy. Sometimes the process that brings a piece of art to life is more interesting than the art itself.