For a large swath of the massively successful series I Love Lucy, it was the central couple of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s home that became an essential piece of comfort for the American public. Tuning in every week, you never knew what Lucy and Ricky, and their neighboring Fred and Ethel, were going to get up to in that domestic space: arguments and sing-alongs, card games and food fights, ridiculous stunts that would leave the living room strewn into disarray. The more, the merrier: For millions of viewers and the many more who grew up on reruns, the Ricardos’ home was home. And you see that home quite often in the relatively glib behind-the-scenes drama Being the Ricardos, yet mostly in the background of the Desilu Productions soundstage where Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), spend hours each day rehearsing, blocking and recording their smash-hit series. That living-room set beckons to Lucy and sometimes even taunts her, an image of the idyllic domestic bliss that she and Desi enacted on camera but never achieved in real life. It’s a sort of reductive conceit, which more or less describes Being the Ricardos as a whole, one of those tidy biographical fantasias that aim to compress something remarkable — a life, a career, a cultural phenomenon — into the space of one revealing week.
And that particular week is quite a stressful one, one set to the rapid percussion solos of Daniel Pemberton’s score. It’s the fall of 1953, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) has recently questioned Lucy about a resurfaced 1936 voter-registration affidavit in which she had identified herself as a member of the Communist Party. The Hollywood blacklist is in full effect and the nervous suits at Desilu and Philip Morris, the tobacco conglomerate that sponsors the show, are eager to kill the story before it makes headlines, prompting some intense crisis management from Lucy and Desi as they struggle to keep their show afloat and get their story straight. And, while Being the Ricardos is many things — a eulogy for a doomed showbiz marriage, a mixed bag of actorly impersonations — it’s fitting that it is, first and foremost, the latest hyper-articulate history lesson written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Which means, of course, that it’s no more interested in sticking to the truth than Lucy is in staying out of Ricky’s nightclub act. The HUAC scandal hit around the time of an episode called “The Girls Go Into Business,” yet Sorkin, with a flick of his pen, has switched to an earlier episode, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” which better serves his narrative purposes and keeps the action rooted in the Ricardos’ apartment.
So any of the I Love Lucy super-fans will essentially find plenty of things to quibble with. The casting of Kidman might be one of them as well. Since Being the Ricardos was announced, there’s been plenty of chatter focused on the lack of physical resemblance between actor and subject, and the question of whether a bright red head of hair would be enough to transform Kidman into the most expressive of screwball comedians, someone whose darting eyes and sheepish winces have forged their own funnywoman lexicon. And while I would say it doesn’t, how much it actually matters is a whole other story.
The Kidman we see onscreen is no more or less plausible a fit for Lucille Ball than, say, Michael Fassbender was for Steve Jobs, to cite an earlier (much better) Sorkin-scripted bio-fantasia. For Kidman, the illusion comes and goes in fits and starts, but you’re fortunately in the hands of an actor with more to recommend her than strict verisimilitude. Kidman may not have Lucy’s large comedic range (who does?), but she does have some wit and a hands-in-the-pockets casualness (to offset her lack of the star’s physical dexterity) and let you know she means business. Her secret weapon may be her voice, which Kidman bends into a nicely husky approximation of Ball’s raspy lower register and raises to a higher pitch when she’s acting. One of the problems — to go along with how shortchanged and flattened the Lucy character is — is that even as Kidman does her utmost to sound like Lucy, Lucy seems to be doing her utmost to sound like Sorkin. It’s not the worst fit: You can easily believe that Lucille Ball always had a snappy rejoinder at the ready, and maybe even a tortured metaphor or two. The same could be said for a lot of the other whip-smart cynics around her, including her co-stars William Frawley (a pretty perfect J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), the former vaudevillians who played Fred and Ethel, and whose mutual loathing became the stuff of legend. If anything, their vitriol feels soft-pedaled here.
The controlled chaos of a TV production is, of course, a native habitat for the creative force behind Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, and so it’s no surprise that the I Love Lucy creative brain trust of Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy) are also fluent in Sorkinese. The one character here who escapes those signature rat-a-tat rhythms is Desi, which is refreshing to a point, though it doesn’t begin to compensate for how unpersuasive Bardem is in the role. Seductive bedroom eyes and lovely singing aside, nothing about Bardem’s low voice or blocky physique begins to suggest Arnaz’s slender charm — or his own deft comic timing, with a gift for bug-eyed reaction shots that sometimes out-bugged his wife’s. He’s just genuinely miscast. What does come through in Kidman and Bardem’s scenes, though, is a strong sense of the Lucy-Desi creative alliance. Their marriage may be on life support — Lucy suspects him of cheating — but their professional devotion to each other never wavers, even in the face of doubting superiors. Amid many dull, expository flashbacks to their earlier days, there’s one decently solid scene in which Lucy agrees to do I Love Lucy for CBS, but only if they also cast her Cuban band-leader husband. A few years later, Desi will make the show even more of a representational trailblazer when he insists that Lucy’s off-screen pregnancy be written into the show.
Lucy promotes her husband relentlessly, reminding everyone that he’s the show’s emotional glue, its artistic and financial mastermind. Desi, for his part, pours himself into a series built entirely around the star qualities of the woman he loves, however imperfectly. That makes Being the Ricardos an interesting film for Sorkin, who in the past has been criticized for celebrating male blowhards at the expense of his underdeveloped female characters. Here he instead gives Kidman the role of a woman whose consummate perfectionism and drive did their part to turn an industry on its head, sometimes at the expense of her colleagues’ egos. Some of Lucy’s actions here come through subplots that seem to spring from a mix of history and imagination: Fearing that the show might be finished if the HUAC affair makes headlines, she basically pushes aside the show’s director, becoming obsessed with reworking key parts of the script until every beat and every line kills. These scenes — poorly punctuated by brief, black-and-white recreations of I Love Lucy — are among the movie’s most unwieldy. They shine in showcasing the rigorousness of Lucy’s comic instincts, but fall flat because of the complete lack of Sorkin’s visual sensibilities, which couldn’t really be more stiff and milquetoast. It’s also in these moments that Sorkin laboriously psychoanalyzes Lucy, as she tries to save her show and her marriage. He may offer a glance of how she took her craft and the audience seriously, but Lucy’s love for us is never really transposed into anything with much life. Often lacking its intended urgency and frequently imbedded in a general glibness, Being the Ricardos is made up of lurching rhythms and a flat, underdeveloped visual sense that stifles any chance for life.
Being the Ricardos will be available to stream on Prime Video on Dec. 21