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Being the Ricardos Movie Review

A Journal for Jordan (2021) movie poster Being the Ricardos

Theatrical Release: December 10, 2021

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R

Writer/Director: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Nicole Kidman (Lucille Ball), Javier Bardem (Desi Arnaz), J.K. Simmons (William Frawley), Nina Arianda (Vivian Vance), Tony Hale (Jess Oppenheimer), Alia Shawkat (Madelyn Pugh), Jake Lacy (Bob Carroll), Linda Lavin (Older Madelyn Pugh), Ronny Cox (Older Bob Carroll), John Rubinstein (Older Jess Oppenheimer), Clark Gregg (Howard Wenke)

 

Everyone knows Aaron Sorkin can write. He's been doing it for nearly forty years and has won much acclaim in the very different realms of movies, television, and theatre with his smart, snappy dialogue. In film, his screenplays have elevated pretty good movies (Moneyball, Steve Jobs)
and occasionally been a central reason for their excellence (The Social Network, A Few Good Men). The jury is still out on Sorkin's talent as a director. He made his debut on Molly's Game (2017), a film I remember little about other than a strong lead performance by the dependable Jessica Chastain. Sorkin's second outing in the director's chair came last year on Netflix's The Trial of the Chicago 7. That true courtroom drama received a bevy of Oscar nominations in the strangest year of film in recent memory and I'm still not entirely sure why, for it was rather inert and corny.

Sorkin has wasted no time taking on his third film as writer-director and, fortunately, Being the Ricardos represents a substantial improvement over his previous two efforts. Extending his streak of true stories, this film spends a tense week on the set of the extremely popular 1950s sitcom "I Love Lucy."

The sitcom's stars and driving forces, real-life married couple Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), are thrust into damage control mode when TV newsman Walter Winchell reveals that Ball once declared herself a member of the Communist Party. This was at the height of the Second Red Scare and when Ball was as well-known and beloved as any woman in entertainment. Her family sitcom was the top-rated show in America, claiming more than two-thirds of the entire television audience at its peak (admittedly, against far less competition than we now have). It was popular enough to change department stores' designated late night hours, reveals one of the crew members reflecting on the show in mock documentary segments Sorkin puts together here to somewhat curious effect.

In addition to Ball's political scandal, which everyone hopes can be defused since she was recently cleared by the House Unamerican Committee, the stars also have to reveal they're expecting their second child, a development with major implications for production at a time when network standards prevented pregnancy from being dramatized, depicted, or even mentioned. And as if those two things weren't enough, there is also a tabloid's new report that Desi has been cheating on Lucy, something he disputes.

Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman play Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin's "Being the Ricardos."

All of these factors put the cast and crew on edge for the week as egos and interests clash and Ball repeatedly takes issues with creative decisions made on the episode they're shooting that week.

Being the Ricardos is notable in that the characters do not all sound as if they are in an Aaron Sorkin script. They are, of course, but the scribe shows uncharacteristic restraint when it comes to the recurring phrases and fast banter for which he is known. That's not to say the screenplay disappoints in any way. As always, Sorkin movies stand out with strong dialogue and personalities and although this one adopts a voice more befitting the era and subjects, it still maintains Sorkin's high standard of quality. It is for sure the best screenplay he himself has directed.

Directing is the area of uncertainty here, but Sorkin proves to takes a much savvier approach than on his previous efforts at the helm. It might be that the subject matter is a good deal more compelling. It might also be that the material is simply a better fit. Sorkin has written lawyers and law enforcement figures before, but he's actually been involved in television production firsthand and while his series "The West Wing", "The Newsroom" and "Sports Night" may be a far cry from "I Love Lucy" both tonally and chronologically, the processes of roundtables, rehearsals, a writer's room, and so on still largely exist as they did back in the '50s.

Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons make the most of their supporting roles as Vivian Vance and William Frawley, the actors who play the Ricardos' neighbors/best friends.

In synopsis, Being the Ricardos might sound heavy, but it is actually quite light in execution. I would not have objected to this getting Comedy or Musical designation from the Golden Globes, where it historically would have faced less competition. It was instead considered as a Drama, which makes the nominations there for both Kidman and Bardem all the more impressive. Sorkin's screenplay cracking the Globes' field of just five screenplays, original or adapted, is significant and well-earned as well.

Whether you consider it comedy or drama, Sorkin's movie proves to be a good deal of fun. You've got these two lead actors of considerable clout embodying arguably the most iconic couple in television history. They are magnetic personalities and the ones we latch onto on a set where even in a week of less turmoil you're certain there'd be some creative conflict. Playing the actors who play the Mertzes, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's oft-encountered next-door neighbors,
J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda are a lot of fun too, warranting serious supporting actor consideration (even though it feels like Simmons just won that category, it has been seven years since Whiplash) this awards season.

There is so much going on for Lucille and Desi in the week depicted that you suspect that Sorkin could be playing with the timeline, consolidating conflicts for dramatic effort. If he does, he does so tastefully and believably. Hopefully Sorkin's original screenplay relies more heavily on research than invention. But this isn't the Holocaust or the Vietnam War we're revisiting here. It's a week in the run of a highly successful mid-century sitcom. I'm not nearly old enough or well versed in "Lucy" to question any of it.

On its own merits, Ricardos is suitably cinematic and easy to get immersed in. Sorkin chooses a strange note to end on, but that is a most minor offense in the midst of all the good that goes down here. Kidman, who you might be surprised to see throwing herself at a classic TV role after the vitriol her Bewitched movie got back in the mid-2000s, gives one of the year's very best performances. Accepting the actress as Lucille Ball is no easy sell, but hair and make-up have done something to make Kidman look somehow in between herself and the iconic redheaded funnywoman. Bardem's Cuban accent won't win everyone over (a quick search revealed some are upset a Spaniard is even playing a Cuban), but he holds his own in the scenes he shares with Kidman, which is most of what he has. There are plenty of laughs throughout and most but not all of them go to Simmons.

Though set in the world of television, Ricardos is decidedly cinema. Nonetheless, as an Amazon Studios release, it will only spend a few qualifying weeks in theaters before becoming available to stream for free on Amazon Prime. Based on the packed house that turned out for my advance screening, I'd say Amazon is leaving money on the table by not pursuing a more traditional theatrical engagement for this film. Then again, everything is struggling at the box office right now, as the other 1950s-set movie opening wide across from this, Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, can no doubt attest to.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: West Side Story A Journal for Jordan House of Gucci
Written by Aaron Sorkin: The Newsroom: The Complete First Season Steve Jobs Moneyball
Nicole Kidman: The Paperboy Strangerland Margot at the Wedding | Javier Bardem: mother! No Country for Old Men The Counselor

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Reviewed January 4, 2022.



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