Critics Pick

‘Being the Ricardos’ Review: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem Play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Wry Perfection in Aaron Sorkin’s Domestic Showbiz Rouser

It packs several famous events into one high-wire week, but that's all part of its Sorkinese punch.

Being the Ricardos

Contrary to popular belief, not every piece of drama with Aaron Sorkin’s name on it has the inimitably timed, exquisitely percussive sound of I-top-you-no-I top-you combative patter known as Sorkinese. “The American President,” in its way, had a sweet flow to it. “The Social Network” was as supple an evocation of the formative tech culture as “All the President’s Men” was of ’70s media politics. And though many may disagree, I thought Sorkin, in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” did a remarkable job of nailing the individual voices of that radical celebrity counterculture brigade.

But “Being the Ricardos,” his movie about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (played to wry perfection by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem), is very much a heady helping of Sorkinese — and a beautiful illustration of what can be intoxicating about it. The entire movie takes place in one pressure-cooker week during the shooting of the CBS sitcom “I Love Lucy.” It’s 1952, the show is in its second season (there have been a total of 37 episodes), and it’s the most popular program in America, with 60 million viewers every week. It’s also a revolutionary show: the first to use the three-camera system that would allow sitcoms, going forward, to be filmed live; and also a mainstream TV comedy about a cross-cultural marriage, starring two actors who, in playing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, were (it was implied) portraying a stylized version of themselves.

“Being the Ricardos” opens on a quick-cut series of mock documentary interviews with latter-day versions of several of the characters — a punchy technique that Sorkin borrows from the Bob Fosse of “Star 80” and “Lenny,” and uses just as effectively. Those snippets set the stage for a week in which more things happened than anyone might have believed. At home with the hot-tempered, whip-smart Lucy and the furtive Cuban dynamo Desi, the drama comes spilling forth. A story is about to come out in the gossip magazine Confidential detailing a long adulterous night out spent by Desi. But the image on the cover, of Desi sitting next to a smiling woman, was actually taken the summer before, at an event that Lucy was at. So maybe the story is all hot air.

Just as Lucy and Desi are having a frantically enthusiastic round of make-up sex (something the film suggests happened quite a lot), a radio report drops the other shoe: Lucy has been accused, in a Walter Winchell column, of being a Communist. So far, no newspaper has picked up the story. And Lucy, whose grandfather was a Communist, claims that there’s nothing to it (her story is that she “checked a box” on a voter registration form). But this is a time when HUAC’s power is at its greatest, and if the charge sticks, Lucy and Desi’s careers are history.

On top of that, Lucy has chosen this week to announce that she’s pregnant. This, of course, became one of the most famous chapters in television history, because of the radical stance taken by Lucy and Desi. Instead of kowtowing to the network brass, who wanted to come up with a way to “hide” the pregnancy (like having Lucy act behind giant chairs or plants), the two stars insisted on building Lucy’s pregnancy right into the sitcom storyline. The network said: Over our dead bodies.

Everything that happens in “Being the Ricardos” really did happen. But it didn’t happen in the same week, or anything close to it, and Sorkin, by presenting it as if it did (not that he’s trying to fool anyone; he’s acknowledged the made-up timeline in interviews), has actually created a quintessential expression of the Sorkinese aesthetic. The dialogue in “Being the Ricardos” has the blunt directness, dagger wit, and perfectly cut corners of Sorkinese ­­— a sound that might be described as hardass Talmudic screwball. Beyond that, though, the entire movie is a piece of thrillingly stylized compression. It gets a real head of steam going, a hurtling energy and anxiety that rides on everything Lucy is feeling. And what Lucy does is to take her own pent-up anxiety — over the Communist-accusation situation, but mostly over the possibility that Desi is an adulterer — and pour it into that week’s episode of “I Love Lucy.” She keeps taking over the set, directing more than the director does, tweaking the comedy bits, trying to make it all work better, trying to make it more…authentic. We see her vision as a comic artist (and her attempt to seize the terrain of male power). But what she’s also doing, on some level, is trying to make the Ricardos be what she wants her and Desi to be. She keeps asking: What would Lucy do? What would Lucy not do? What she’s really asking is: What should Lucy do?

“Being the Ricardos” is a comedy of marriage, deft and romantic yet spun around a deadly serious suspicion that keeps eating away at Lucy. It’s also the R-rated version of a workplace-as-family sitcom, with characters who thrust and parry but also curse and speak their minds with toxic glee. It’s a backroom drama of corporate showbiz politics, showing us how the sausage of television gets made (or did in the ’50s). It’s a Lucille Ball biopic, showing us the movie star she nearly was before she got kicked off the star track and wound up creating the persona of Lucy Ricardo. And it’s an homage to “I Love Lucy” and everything that made it a hilarious culture-shifting touchstone, and also a deconstruction of “I Love Lucy.” Not everything in “Being the Ricardos” happened in one week, but part of what the film captures about the live-wire fishbowl of ’50s television is that it feels like it could have.

The movie is structured around the creation of that week’s episode, and from the moment everyone sits down at the first table reading, Sorkin sets a tone of high-spirited malice, in which these TV veterans are too mouthy and successful not to say just what they think. J.K. Simmons has a field day as William Frawley, the vaudeville veteran who played the curmudgeonly Fred Mertz, who Simmons makes 10 times as much of a curmudgeon off-camera — he’s a rancorous coot who likes to nip whiskey at dive bars at 10:00 a.m., and whose favorite pastime is to come up with new ways to insult his costar, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda). But Simmons is such a sly dog that, of course, he keeps unpeeling the character. Beneath the bilious loner is a nostalgic relic of Old Hollywood, a caustically witty observer and, on some level, a real human being.

Nina Arianda, as Vivian, is just as indelible. She shows us how the feisty Vivian longed to break out of the fuddy-duddiness of her role as Ethel, a character married to her grandfather (as she puts it), and she brilliantly reveals how it cuts Vivian to the quick when she learns her new diet is being monitored by everyone on the show, from Lucy on down — because she’s not supposed to stray too far from the ideal of American “normalcy.”

Yet it’s the dance of Kidman and Bardem that gives “Being the Ricardos” its light but molten magic. I went into the movie not being able to put Nicole Kidman and Lucille Ball together in my head. But here’s how good Kidman is. As the Lucy of the sitcom, she’s perfection, nailing the squalls and pop-eyed double takes, the blaring voice, the whole way that Lucy Ricardo was goofy-clueless with an invisible trickiness — a form of passive-aggression. The sitcom moments, in black-and-white, are presented almost like dreams. But off-camera, Kidman captures the brassy glamourpuss that Lucille Ball was. She makes Lucy sensual and demanding, prickly and affectionate, with an ability to read the room — a quintessential modern woman who was stuck in the role of always trying to drag the rest of the world to catch up with her.

The movie tells Lucy’s story in flashbacks, going back to her days as an RKO contract player, where she met Desi on the set of “Too Many Girls.” And we see the moment when the possibility of stardom flickered for her. “The Big Street” (1942), in which she costarred with Henry Fonda, becomes a hit with critics and performs respectably at the box office, and when she gets a meeting with the head of production at RKO, Charles Koerner (Brian Howe), it’s a classic scene that speaks dark volumes about Hollywood — then and now. Kidman’s tag line is one of the three most exquisite readings of Sorkinese I’ve ever heard.

As “Being the Ricardos” presents it, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had a rocky showbiz marriage. They adored each other, but their careers pulled them apart from the beginning — there’s a touching moment when they meet after 4:00 a.m. on Mulholland Drive, because that’s when Desi is getting out of his nightclub performance at Ciro’s, and that’s when she’s headed into hair and make-up. Bardem makes Desi a maestro who knows how to throw his weight around; it’s thrilling to see him jostle the network executives and threaten them — as when he goes over their heads to appeal to the chairman of the board of Philip Morris, the sponsor of “I Love Lucy,” about the pregnancy plotline. But Desi, while an ebullient actor and a forward-thinking maverick entrepreneur, is not such an advanced husband. He loves Lucy, but what that love means to him is that he expects to be loved in a certain way, and to enjoy certain freedoms. Like his nights out, which are becoming more voluminous. Is he really spending all of them on a boat playing cards?

There are anachronisms in “Being the Ricardos” — no one back then said “Got it!” the way they do now. There are also sharp observations about how the comedy on “I Love Lucy” worked and what it meant, like the scene where Lucy and the show’s only female scriptwriter, Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), improvise the famous Lucy-stomping-grapes scene, topped off by Lucy losing an earring. Lucy was a clown who expressed an antic inner world that women could see themselves in. Off camera, the Lucy of “Being the Ricardos” keeps pushing the show to be better, and that means closer to something real. She was an entertainment visionary who, Sorkin suggests, was also trying to perfect her home away from home. She succeeded, maybe too well.

‘Being the Ricardos’ Review: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem Play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Wry Perfection in Aaron Sorkin’s Domestic Showbiz Rouser

Reviewed at Florence Gould Theater, Nov. 17, 2021. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 131 MIN.

  • Production: An Amazon Studios release of an Escape Artists production. Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch. Executive producers: Jenna Block, Stuart Besser, David Bloomfield, Lauren Lohman, Lucie Arnaz, Desi Arnaz Jr.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Aaron Sorkin. Camera: Jeff Cronenweth. Editor: Alan Baumgarten. Music: Daniel Pemberton.  
  • With: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, John Rubinstein, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Christopher Denham, Brian Howe, Ron Perkins.