Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.
Release Date: December 10th, 2021 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Aaron Sorkin Actors: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Jake Lacy, Alia Shawkat
ith fictional interviews conducted with actors portraying real people – including Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh – “Being the Ricardos” is off to a curious start. This becomes more apparent when those answers (from unheard questions from an unseen interviewer) are given by older versions of the personas, recounting events from long ago (perhaps reminiscent of “Reds” or “Take the Money and Run”). The story proper is set in the early ‘50s, during the filming of episode 4 of season 2 of “I Love Lucy,” just after Walter Winchell said “Lucille Ball is a communist” on his radio program – kicking off a hectic week of production for Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem).
As executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) wrangles the cast and crew of the show, including writers Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy) and Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), as well as costars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), during a Monday table read, Lucy and Desi must contend with rumors about infidelity, hiccups in the script, and a pregnancy that could derail upcoming filming – as well as the possibility of newspapers spreading negative headlines about Ball’s potential flirtation with communism. Curiously, the premise of the entire picture is basically this one week, though there are flashbacks to earlier years, designed to introduce viewers to the beginning of the couple’s romance, as well as to the inception of “I Love Lucy.” But this particular, limited span does gather together many of the stars’ most trying predicaments, including marital issues and creative control over the show.
Unfortunately, the communism scare isn’t as relevant or pressing today as it was then (save for the potency and divisiveness of politics itself), taking away some of the power of the more relatable, galvanizing hurdles, such as Lucy’s waning trust in her husband, her unhappy home life, the constant battles with male egos, the writers’ infantilization of the Lucy character, and contention with the studio heads and advertising executives who object to incorporating a pregnancy into the series’ plot (“You can’t have a pregnant woman on television!”). As everything seems to be going wrong for the larger-than-life duo, the curtain is pulled back to reveal a distinct ugliness, ranging from bitterly nitpicking, sharp-tongued perfectionism on the set, to the constant quarreling among cast members and the staff. Lucy and Desi are at their least likable as they sort out the personal and professional predicaments that threaten their continued success.
A bit of a history lesson fills in details on the two leads, touching upon their early relationship, Lucy’s transition from an RKO girl (and formerly a Ziegfeld and Goldwyn girl) to a lead role in “The Big Street” (and her dropped contract shortly thereafter), and finally the radio show that led to what is arguably the greatest sitcom of all time (here, choice sequences are recreated, such as Lucy in the vat of grapes in Italy). They’re both fascinating people, but this specific chapter in their lives frequently leaves much to be desired; the truthful yet caustic and uncomfortable nature of the goings-on behind the scenes paints everyone in an objectionable light. There are no clearcut protagonists in this unattractive portrait of influential moguls grievously feuding with disgruntled associates.
It is intermittently funny, however, thanks to writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s skill with witty insults and rapid-fire retorts. But clever verbiage isn’t enough to overcome the dismal qualities of fame and fortune failing to provide Lucy and Desi with happiness, revealing that their delightfully pleasing show obscured a wealth of infighting, unfaithfulness, and a deteriorating marriage. The creation of “I Love Lucy” itself might have made for a better biopic than this tragic, one-week ordeal of political, familial, and filmic mayhem (a bit heavy-handed, too, considering the fictional intersection of these otherwise factual events was manufactured for the sake of drama), though this arrangement gives the actors a chance to showcase all angles of these monumental celebrities. And while Simmons and Arianda come across as adept impersonations, Bardem and Kidman are frequently quite good at embodying their inimitable counterparts – a feat sure to draw attention from year-end awards.
– Mike Massie