Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin Cast: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawcat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, John Rubinstein, Brian Howe, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Ron Perkins and Christopher Denham Distributor: Amazon Studios
What a difference a year makes. In Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” J. Edgar Hoover may not actually have appeared, but his malevolent presence loomed over the story, embodied in his minions. In Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos,” while Hoover again doesn’t appear, he emerges as a deus ex machina to save the day at a crucial moment in the lives of Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their groundbreaking television sitcom “I Love Lucy” about madcap Lucy and her bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo.
Based on the relative success of the two pictures, the writer-director is more comfortable with the FBI director as villain than hero, but that’s hardly a surprise. Nor is the revelation that he’s better at drama than comedy.
Hoover’s intervention this time around is related to one of the facts about Ball, Arnaz and their show that Sorkin has thrown together into an overloaded whirl of activity surrounding the production of a single episode of the series that may be chronologically wacky but, it’s suggested, when further expanded by flashbacks and flash-forwards, is dramatically true to the tumult of their personal and professional lives. The result is rather like a full season of “The West Wing,” with all its myriad plots and subplots, transferred to a frenzied Hollywood studio and whittled down to two hours.
The week that Sorkin has invented—one in 1952, when the show, in its second season, has become an astronomical hit—is filled with crises. The biggest, in which Hoover comes into the picture, is that in his popular radio broadcast Walter Winchell has dropped the bombshell accusation that Ball is a Communist, a charge that if true could sink her career and the program along with it. How to handle the matter by the time of filming before a live audience becomes Desi’s headache.
But not the only one. A tabloid magazine has published an exposé about his supposed infidelity, which naturally infuriates Ball. He has to persuade her that the story’s false.
Then there’s the little matter of Lucy’s pregnancy. Desi insists that it be written into the season storyline, but the CBS honchos reject the idea out of hand. Will a direct appeal to the sponsor change their mind?
While all that is swirling about them, an episode has to be finished for broadcast. That means refining the script and determining the staging—not an easy task, since perfectionist Ball won’t abide sloppy writing and is in the habit of overruling directorial decisions she considers inept. Making it all the more difficult is that the premise of the half-hour is a fight between second bananas Fred and Ethel Mertz, which mirrors the hostility between the actors who played them, William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Vance is also upset about Ball’s insistence that in order to look frumpy beside her, Vance has to cut back on her dieting and exercise.
Lucy is also pressuring harried producer Jess Oppenheimer to give greater recognition to Desi’s contribution to the show, perhaps by giving him an executive producer credit.
Folded into this whirlwind of activity are flashbacks to Ball’s stillborn movie career, the immediate chemistry between her and Desi that led to a marriage by turns passionately romantic and highly contentious, and Lucy’s insistence that if her radio comedy “My Favorite Husband” were turned into a television series, Desi would have to be her co-star, replacing Richard Denning. And there are periodic clips from supposed interviews with aged versions of Oppenheimer and show writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. to report on “how it really was” back in the day.
As all this should make obvious, Sorkin has really overstuffed the movie, and though his writing has his customary whiplash quality, his direction is overly aggressive; the result is more exhausting than enlightening or entertaining.
That’s certainly not the fault of the actors. Neither Nicole Kidman nor Javier Bardem, whatever the efforts of the makeup team might have been, resembles the people they’re playing physically. But they offer performances rather than impressions. Kidman nails Ball’s hard-headed professionalism and self-confidence, and Bardem Arnaz’s hard-driving assurance and entrepreneurial savvy. (Sorkin takes time to credit him with devising the three-camera setup for sitcoms shot before live audiences that became an industry standard, and also inserts a sequence of him performing his nightclub act, quite capably.) But perhaps because of Sorkin’s lack of comedic instinct, they’re never very funny, even when recreating some of the classic “I Love Lucy” moments.
J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda are far more successful in that respect. They don’t look much like Frawley or Vance, but are able to bring humor to those well-known characters in a way that allows you to overlook the physical dissimilarity more easily. Simmons of course is an accomplished scene-stealer, and his curmudgeonly persona is bound to be as much an audience favorite here as Frawley’s was on the program; when he gets the opportunity to turn on the actor’s softer side, he adds a touch of humanity to the film that even Kidman and Bardem rarely manage.
Everybody else in the cast is like a minor satellite circling around those four, but Tony Hale and John Rubinstein (as the younger and older versions of Oppenheimer), Alia Shawkat and Linda Lavin (as the two Pughs) and Jake Lacy and Ronny Cox (as before-and-after versions of Carroll) all have their moments. Clark Gregg, a familiar face to Marvel fans, is another in the raft of staff at Desilu.
Visually “Being the Ricardos” is bifurcated. The Desilu sequences are dark and dank, the flashbacks bright and gleaming. Presumably that was a choice cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth made with Sorkin, and whether or not you find it pleasing, it’s carried through effectively. Throughout John Hutman’s production design and Susan Lyall costumes reflect the fifties, though with a sheen that doesn’t show a truly lived-in look. Editor Alan Baumgarten was certainly put through his paces dealing with Sorkin’s many shifts of chronology and perspective, but he manages pretty well, and Daniel Pemberton’s score doesn’t push too hard.
Given Sorkin’s inclination to include too much, we can at least be grateful that he didn’t try to shoehorn mention of either of Lucy and Desi’s movies—“The Long, Long Trailer” and “Forever Darling”—into his week from hell, though either would have fit into the cascade of crises. As it is, “Being the Ricardos” is a depressing enough tale of a couple that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations on the tube but had serious problems off it.