Moviegoer: Being the Ricardos


I don’t love Lucy in this behind-the-scenes drama

By Diana Beechener

In 1953, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman: Nine Perfect Strangers) was one of the most powerful women in the country. The star of America’s favorite sitcom, her show influenced how the country behaved, how they laughed, even when they showered. Sixty million people stopped whatever they were doing Monday nights to watch the antics of Lucy Ricardo as she tried to outwit her loving husband in increasingly zany ways.

So when gossip magnate Walter Winchell accused her of being a Communist, she had a lot more to fear than the wrath of her husband.

During the height of the Red Scare, an accusation like that could land any actor, no matter how beloved, on the Blacklist. They wouldn’t be able to work, even people associated with them would be tainted, and their career was, in effect, over.

But Lucy can’t just worry about a potential career-ending blow. She’s also pregnant with her second child and dealing with reports that her husband and costar, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem: Dune) is cheating on her. The former is the real problem for CBS, who can’t conceive of allowing an openly pregnant woman on the air.

“People will wonder how she got that way!” cries an executive, aghast at the suggestion that Lucy’s pregnancy is written into the story.

Furious that his wife’s pregnancy is considered taboo, Desi wants to fight the decision. But his righteous fervor might be for naught. If Lucy is condemned as a Communist in the mainstream press, there won’t be a show. Lucy just wants to know why Desi hasn’t been coming home – he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

If Desi and Lucy can survive this week and manage to make a show, it’ll be a miracle.  

Wry, sharply observed, and beautifully written, Being the Ricardos manages to cram a whole lot into two hours. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) deftly weaves backstage comedy, Hollywood satire, domestic drama, and political upheaval into a film that covers five production days on the set of America’s most famous sitcom. It’s a tall order, but Sorkin’s trademark brilliant dialogue and lickety-split plotting are up to the challenge.

Though Sorkin molds a compelling story with great performances, there’s a glaring problem at the center: Kidman. While Bardem manages to transcend his physical differences to embody the role of Desi, Kidman has no such luck. Her brittle, controlled style of acting takes away the sarcastic bite of Lucy’s words. She’s supposed to be cutting and funny like Bette Davis, instead, we get a middling, bitter-sounding Lucy who’s so snide and insecure that it’s a wonder anyone loves her. Worse still is when Kidman apes Lucy’s most famous comedy bits. The film makes a point to talk about Ball’s natural physical comedy gifts. Kidman has none of them. Instead, we get a mannered, stiff Lucy making unnatural faces as she tries desperately to be funny. It turns comedy into tragedy.

         And there’s the rub: Can an I Love Lucy movie be good if the actor portraying Lucy isn’t? In this reviewer’s opinion, it’s an exercise in frustration. With a great supporting cast and a smart script, the film could have been one of the best of the year, but it drags every time Kidman is on screen.

         But the show must go on, and it does, often impressively. Bardem is a charming Desi, fiercely loyal to his wife and what they built, even if he doesn’t come home when he should. As Vivian Vance and William Frawley, Nina Arianda and JK Simmons are dynamite. Arianda gets one of the more compelling storylines, coming to terms with being pigeonholed as the “unattractive second banana” to Lucy. The team does great work keeping the film dynamic, even when the lead performance isn’t.

         If you’re a fan of the original show, or of Sorkin’s writing, Being the Ricardos is worth a look—on Prime. Save yourself the cost of a ticket and wait until the movie is available for streaming on Amazon, Dec. 21.

Fair Biopic * R * 125 mins.