Does Aaron Sorkin love the storied and colorful history of classic television, as implied by the earnest wonder of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip? Or does Aaron Sorkin actually just love telling audiences that a bunch of years ago, something really important happened, as explicitly stated by multiple characters from Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip? Being The Ricardos, which depicts a Sorkinized week in the life of TV legends Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), has evidence of both passions, but one thing is certain: This is a movie that will enrapture audiences, so long as those audiences are populated with characters from Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.
Maybe it’s unfair to repeatedly bring up Sorkin’s greatest boondoggle (or at least one of his top two). After all, Being The Ricardos follows up an Oscar-nominated Netflix hit and a gambling drama, neither of which has anything to do with the glory of producing a network television series.
Even Ricardos, which is obviously in Sorkin’s Paley Center For The Media sweet spot, tries to expand his usual scope. The basic structure is classic Sorkin, following Ball as she copes with brewing accusations of communism, suspicions of Arnaz’s infidelity, and fighting executives and sponsors over working her real-life pregnancy into I Love Lucy—all while haranguing her various writers, directors, and co-stars to make sure that week’s episode of the megahit sitcom meets her exacting standards of quality.
Yet Sorkin does deviate from his comfort zone to include snippets of (fake) documentary-style talking-head interviews, offering historical and retrospective context to this period in the Ball/Arnaz relationship. And more prominently, intimate flashback scenes take a less zippy approach to the origins of the couple’s collaboration.
The courtship of Lucy and Desi is melancholy, isolated as it is from backstage hustle, bustle, and banter, and suffused with the frustrations Ball feels as she’s told, essentially, that she’s not enough of a looker to make it in the movies. This is potentially interesting stuff, but it’s dramatized without much invention or zip; most of the information these scenes convey could be surmised from dialogue, one of those cases where maybe telling instead of showing would be preferable. The real purpose of the flashback scenes is to help further reconcile two iconic real-life “characters” with the extremely talented actors who don’t quite match them in age, style, or physicality.
Despite the hemming and hawing that followed the casting of the decidedly non-rubberfaced Kidman as Ball, don’t we want to be transported into a bizarre reverie where some part of Kidman becomes some part of Ball (preferably without the aid of mirthless technical impersonation) while revealing a hidden side to the beloved performer? That’s not exactly what happens in Being The Ricardos, though it’s hard to blame any of the actors, especially when Kidman comes close to pulling it off. The movie sidesteps some impersonation issues by portraying Ball as a different sort of comic dynamo off-camera, more acerbic than her on-camera reliance on physical comedy lets on. Considering how many other recent Kidman roles have her speaking in a sorrowful whisper, it’s admittedly a kick to see her fire off brassy, bossy zingers opposite Arrested Development alumni like Alia Shawkat (playing Ball’s best writer) and Tony Hale (playing her harried showrunner).
Kidman can’t, however, fully act around the distracting makeup job, or find many opportunities to burrow underneath the rigid surfaces of Sorkin’s favorite type of story: where an innately talented and correct person argues for something seemingly impossible over and over, and is repeatedly told it can’t happen… until it finally does, vindicating the hardheaded genius. Here, Ball is arguing for her on-screen pregnancy, against giving credence to gossipy stories about her political affiliations, for giving Arnaz a more prominent producing credit, and against the staging of an I Love Lucy scene she feels quietly but clearly insults her audience’s intelligence. The mix of high and low stakes is compelling—until the movie flattens them all into the same basic, righteous argument, leaving the suspicion that a comedy titan has been refashioned in Sorkin’s image.
The thorniest complication here is supposed to be something Ball feels less certain about: her husband. Being The Ricardos portrays Arnaz as his own manner of genius, somehow both riding Ball’s coattails (CBS pursued her, a flashback notes, based on her radio success with a show that did not co-star her real-life husband) and steering her career from that unlikely vantage. Bardem does introduce some ambiguity and unpredictability into the proceedings; his charisma operates independently from the world of sniping comedy writers.
He and Kidman give the movie an extra (and sometimes frankly strange) bit of pizzazz, and Sorkin seems to sense it, recognizing that the stars imperfectly but eye-catchingly impersonating other stars shine are big for his lofty yet closed universe. He introduces them accordingly, with the rare Sorkin visual flourish that goes beyond the TV-ready walk-and-talk: In their first scene, the actors’ faces are kept off-screen, then out of focus, embracing each other passionately until Ball overhears a radio broadcast insinuating about her past in the Communist Party, stopping their passion cold.
That accusation is where the really important stuff comes in, and while that conflict is clearly supposed to occupy Ball’s foreground with her marital issues percolating in the background, Sorkin can’t resist drowning out the latter with the former. He even trots out a token principled conservative, here the cranky and hard-drinking I Love Lucy actor William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who hates commies but hates the HUAC more! The personal behind-the-scenes material between Ball and her staff hits a little harder—which still leaves this supposed dual biography feeling oddly centerless.
The Lucy-Desi material that should be at the heart of the story never really pays off, as if it’s wandered off and found another, secret movie to inhabit. Maybe that film wouldn’t be any better than those made-for-TV biopic melodramas like Hemingway & Gellhorn—but Being The Ricardos never really has a chance to prove itself. By compressing a lot of fascinating dimensions of the couple’s work and life into a single week, it gives them urgency in the moment, then waves them away with only a hint of the lingering complications that informed their real-life future. In the end, it’s Sorkin’s show that must go on.