Everyone loves Lucy, right? Lucille Ball’s groundbreaking 1950s sitcom would define television comedy for generations of viewers, earning her and Desi Arnaz a place in pop culture history. But if there’s one person who doesn’t love Lucy, it’s (perplexingly) Aaron Sorkin, writer/director of Being the Ricardos. That’s the only explanation for how the film unfolds, as a bizarrely miscast production with a cliched, overwritten script that betrays all of Sorkin’s worst instincts as a writer. And beyond anything else, it becomes increasingly apparent that he doesn’t even find the famous comedian particularly funny; there’s a respectful acknowledgment of her comic instincts, but the Lucille Ball he creates here is one that’s almost humorless.
Being the Ricardos takes place over the course of one week in the lives of Lucy and Desi, famed television stars. And it’s an especially busy week: They are not only living the daily grind of getting a piece of episodic television ready to go in front of a live studio audience, but several complicating factors make things a little more hectic than usual.
Problem #1: Rumors are circulating in the press of Desi (Javier Bardem) cheating on Lucy, creating tension between the two I Love Lucy stars.
Problem #2: Lucy is pregnant, and she wants to have her character Lucy Ricardo also have a baby on the show. There has never been a pregnancy storyline on an American network sitcom before: Up until this point, visibly pregnant actresses would hide behind strategically placed focuses and laundry baskets. As one might expect, the network executives are a bit squirrely about the idea (to say the least).
Problem #3: The press has uncovered Lucille Ball’s voter registration card from the 1930s, showing that she was once a member of the Communist party. It’s only a matter before every newspaper in America breaks the story, causing a massive Cold War scandal in the anti-communist McCarthy era.
A busy week, indeed.
So much so that it actually hurts the film: None of the issues are given the appropriate attention, and it ends up resulting in an overstuffed narrative and more than a little bit messy. Worst of all, there’s really no reason for it since the timing is entirely orchestrated by Sorkin. Lucy and Desi’s son was already a year old when the news story about Lucy’s Communist membership broke, and adultery allegations surrounding Desi had followed the couple throughout their entire marriage. So by conflating all of these problems rather than picking one or maybe even two and really delving into them, it does a disservice to Being the Ricardos.
But perhaps the biggest problem is how fundamentally miscast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are in the two lead roles. Kidman’s performance is fine, but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to Lucille Ball. The comedian’s famously expressive face is done little justice by Kidman, who, well, to put it delicately, does not have the most moveable facial features in Hollywood. During all the comedy sequences, when she’s gurning for the camera, they make the baffling choice to use canned laughter to signal humor rather than, you know, having the character be genuinely funny in those moments. Barden is equally ill-suited: Setting aside the questionable decision to cast a Spanish man as one of the most famous Cuban actors in history, he captures very little of Desi Arnaz’s personality. Both he and Kidman are good actors and present a compelling vision of a showbiz couple, but there’s not much that suggests Lucy and Desi.
Being the Ricardos really only picks up steam when they venture onto the set of I Love Lucy, with its impressive supporting cast that includes JK Simmons, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Nina Arianda. Simmons as William Frawley (“Fred”) and Arianda as Vivian Vance (“Ethel”) are entertaining to watch. In fact, you could easily make an argument that this film might have been better told from one of their perspectives. Still, though, Sorkin has a tendency to overplay his hand. Bits run on for beats too long, jokes are run into the ground as Sorkin enjoys hearing his words spoken aloud a little too much. In a film as unnecessarily long as Being the Ricardos, it’s an especially egregious indulgence.
So ultimately, Being the Ricardos ends up being something of a disappointment. Sorkin attempts to juggle too many narrative elements within an already overcrowded film, and he is hamstrung additionally by two talented actors turning in strangely charmless performances. The saving grace of Being the Ricardos is its engaging and consistently funny supporting cast, but they’re used too infrequently to make a huge impact. It’s an unfocused tribute to a groundbreaking female comedic talent who deserves better and, amidst a cinematic landscape overflowing with celebrity biopics, Being the Ricardos fails to make an impact.