It’s 1953 and I Love Lucy is the biggest show on television, with no fewer than 60 million people tuning in every week. The comedic dream team of Lucille Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz has created television gold. But it’s not all plain sailing for the titans of the medium. Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos peels back the curtain during one critical week behind the scenes of I Love Lucy. Ball and Arnaz’s personal troubles and his reported infidelities clash with their business dealings. The threat of the Red Scare and McCarthy-driven blacklisting is all too real. Walter Winchell has just declared to the world that everybody’s favorite redheaded housewife is a communist.
The problem with Aaron Sorkin is that he just can’t help himself. His trademark fast-paced dialogue, penchant for long-winded monologues, and screwball approach to the most dramatic of topics can often be thrilling to watch unfold. There is a reason that the ‘walk and talk’ theatrics of The West Wing proved so exciting to a generation of audience. It’s a wonderful fantasy to imagine a world where bracing wit is so commonplace and intellectual thought prioritized over quips and buzzwords. Of course, it is this magical concept that Sorkin also often finds himself overwhelmed by. That rat-a-tat-tat style frequently descends into finger-wagging self-importance. It’s not enough for his characters to sound important. He must hammer home at every possible opportunity that his work is smart and demanding of respect. He writes dialogue not to convince but to win, and that can be beyond tedious at the best of times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 was sunk by this approach and turned some of the most vibrant and appealingly petulant voices of the era into inert boomer-esque talking points. So, you can imagine one’s apprehension at seeing this battering-ram approach applied to the grand dame of television, especially given Sorkin’s last attempt at depicting the behind-the-scenes drama of TV comedy was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
The film opens with a mockumentary of sorts, with actors playing the inner circle of the Arnaz duo offering the audience a reminder as to why I Love Lucy was such a big deal. That Sorkin felt the need to descend into lecture mode in minute one is not a good sign of what’s to follow. Every time they pop up to provide backstory, I wondered if it would have been easier to cut out the middleman and put up a sign asking viewers to consult the required Wikipedia page. Such a plot device isn’t necessarily a bad idea but these talking heads don’t add much substance to a story that hints at weightier ideas beyond its glossy surface. When offered the opportunity to, say expand upon Ball’s actual politics, the film flinches. It’s just enough for us to know that Ball wasn’t a real communist, thank you very much.
I’ve spent way too much time recently falling over tweets furious that Lucille Ball is being played by Nicole Kidman rather than Debra Messing in bad drag. A lot of column inches have been dedicated to not-so-delicately broaching the subject of Kidman’s appearance as it relates to Ball’s uniquely elastic expressiveness. Personally, I don’t care whether an actor looks exactly like the real person they’re playing and think this focus on waxwork-esque photocopies of history is bad for art. Still, I understand the apprehension, particularly since Kidman often doesn’t seem like she’s even trying to emulate Ball. There’s much to commend about the performance, however. Kidman’s penchant for dry humor gets several moments to shine and she can deliver a scathing putdown with fabulous ease. She has a crackle of chemistry with a suitably roguish Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz but it works better when they’re adversarial rather than sexual (also someone really needs to sit Sorkin down and explain to him why it’s an issue to cast a Hispanic actor as one of American pop culture’s most famous Cubans.)
It’s clear that Sorkin is more comfortable in scenes where Ball and Arnaz are bosses of a business empire than real people with lives outside of the studio. The sharpest moments come when Ball and Arnaz dissect every line of their upcoming episode’s screenplay, questioning jokes with no explanation beyond ‘just because’ and calling out moments that make no sense for the characters they play. It leaves plenty of room for zingers, with which Kidman has a great time, but Sorkin’s repetition soon wears thin. It seems weird in a story about legendary comedic writers that people have to keep explaining when they’re joking. When forced to include the all-but-mandated recreations of iconic I Love Lucy scenes, the energy dissipates. Sorkin, Kidman, and Bardem alike suddenly become too mannered, too out of balance with the inimitable alchemy of Ball’s slapstick genius. It’s like a RuPaul’s Drag Race acting challenge at times. At one point, Ball laments that the director of the week doesn’t understand physical comedy, which felt a tad more self-aware than one typically expects for Sorkin.
While the focus has primarily been on the leads’ casting, Sorkin, for once, actually makes great choices with the supporting players (miscasting is another thing that made The Trial of the Chicago 7 such an ill fit for the narrative it wanted to breathe life int.) The ever-underrated Nina Arianda is a total blast as Vivian Vance. She bounces off J.K. Simmons’s William Frawley, her on-screen husband and off-screen nemesis, with the kind of ’30s screwball energy that would have been ideal in an Irene Dunne comedy, albeit with more creative frustration. Alia Shawkat gets an all too rare opportunity to stretch her wings in the role of Madelyn Pugh, a perennially exhausted writer who’s all too used to having every joke she pitches be questioned by her boss-slash-friend. It’s just a shame that we don’t get more from them.
There’s something to be said for making comedy look like the hard work that it truly is, but Being the Ricardos doesn’t seem to have much to say about the art form beyond its immense labor. Every comment about it, every critique or network note or mockumentary aside, sounds the same. They all sound like Aaron Sorkin and this bombardment of identical voices in an overlong and extremely padded story inevitably descends into a whole bunch of head nodding and, of course, finger-wagging. For a film about the most iconic comedy series of its time, Being the Ricardos is joyless and, well, Sorkin-esque. Everything you expect to happen, all those cringe-inducing beats, arrive and soon you can’t help but feel like you’re being talked down to. Sorkin the director is clearly unwilling to rein in the worst excesses of Sorkin the writer. Indeed, he enhances them with flat cinematography and a syrupy score from Daniel Pemberton, a composer with much better retro scores under his belt (hello, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) A director doesn’t need to deify their subject to tell their story but one would at least hope that they wanted to understand them. Sorkin doesn’t seem to have any warmth or respect or even curiosity about Lucille Ball. He just wants another mouthpiece. Like I said: he just can’t help himself.
Being the Ricardos is available to watch now on Amazon Prime.