‘Being the Ricardos’ Turns ‘I Love Lucy’ into the Nicole Kidman Show

‘Being the Ricardos’ Turns ‘I Love Lucy’ into the Nicole Kidman Show
Photo Credit: Glen Wilson / © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

What you need to know

‘Being the Ricardos’ has divided critics on everything but one point: Nicole Kidman is a revelation.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “When critics disagree, an artist is in accord with himself.” In that sense, the wildly disparate critical reactions to Being the Ricardos show that writer-director Aaron Sorkin is finally at home with himself. Just about the only thing everyone agrees on is that Nicole Kidman delivers an outstanding performance.

Kidman plays Lucille Ball opposite Javier Bardem’s Desi Arnaz, the married stars of the ground- and record-breaking sitcom I Love Lucy (1951-57), during a pivotal week when they have to deal with multiple crises: a weekly episode that isn’t coming together, a tabloid account of Desi’s infidelity, Lucille’s newly confirmed pregnancy (not allowed on TV in those days), and the most serious crisis, accusations that Lucille is a communist. Lucille calls it “a compound fracture of a week”; the events are all real, but deciding to compound them is poetic license.

This is thrilling material; at the time, I Love Lucy was the biggest show on TV. Playing Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, Arnaz and Ball pioneered the domestic sitcom, had the first Cuban American star (Arnaz), and showed an actual pregnancy on TV for the first time. They had a famously passionate and turbulent relationship. And Ball herself was a commanding presence as an artist and a manager-type, later becoming the first woman to head a major production studio (it was sold off to become Paramount’s TV department).

It feels weird to say at this point in her career, but Kidman is a revelation. She plays Sorkin’s typical balls-breaking female lead with panache, amply assisted by her business casual power outfits (designed by Susan Lyall). After a bracing corporate negotiation that goes Desi’s way, Lucille says to the room, “And that’s not even why I married him.” She then kisses him passionately and says, “That’s why I married him.” Corny writing, convincingly sold.

Photo Credit: Glen Wilson / © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

She excels at giving depth to the script’s fleeting glimpses of Lucille’s vulnerability, and in connecting surface and depth with nuance. No longer is Sorkin the director beholden to Sorkin the writer, as in his directorial debut, Molly’s Game (2017); his signature rapid-fire dialogue is tempered by the underlying complexity of the characters and their relationships, making Kidman’s performance of Lucille’s hidden layers the heart and soul of the film.

Sorkin isn’t content with leaving it at that. Much as in Molly’s Game, he’s compelled to try to explicate Lucille’s layers by linking her turbulent marriage and the domesticity of I Love Lucy to her troubled early childhood. But he goes heavy on the symbolism without enough concrete detail to back it up. It feels both shoehorned in and not enough.

Admittedly, Kidman is no great shakes at Ball’s signature physical comedy. It helps that neither is Bardem, or J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, who play William Frawley and Vivian Vance, the actors that portray the Ricardos’ unhappily married neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz. But they give it the ol’ college try, and for the few scenes we get of the TV show, it’s enough.

Those few scenes are one of the two major structural innovations of the film. They appear not as some of the film’s many flashbacks, but when Lucille is imagining ideas proposed by the show’s writers, letting the scenes play out in her head. These are intercut by editor Alan Baumgarten with shots of Lucille staring into the middle distance (cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth), and by God, Kidman really looks like she’s thinking. It’s one of the hardest things to do on screen.

The other innovation is to add faux documentary talking heads to form a kind of Greek Chorus. At key moments, they help set the scene, build viewer anticipation, smooth over segues, and, in the dénouement, brilliantly fragment the interpretation of events to shield Lucille from the oppressive power of the historical record and allow her, the biggest celebrity of her day, a moment of privacy. The talking heads aren’t meant to add realism, but to subtract from it.

Like Spencer, another Oscar contender this year, Being the Ricardos champions emotional realism over narrative realism and biographical fact. Trying to keep straight the unified timeline of the multiple plotlines can give you whiplash, and nobody is arguing that Kidman actually resembles Ball. But the talking heads, snappy and zinger-filled dialogue, and rhythmic score (by Daniel Pemberton) keep us on board, and, in the words of I Love Lucy showrunner, executive producer, and head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), we “accept the conceit.”

Having accumulated this store of goodwill, the film chooses to spend it on cultural politics. I Love Lucy senior writer and deadpan insult genius Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat, who is perhaps best known for portraying Alexander Hamilton on the Comedy Central show Drunk History) sees her role in the writers room as advocating a “new generation’s” feminist perspective against the show’s “infantilizing” of Lucy; but Lucille herself disagrees, advocating instead for whatever’s funny. Vivian never gets over having to play the frumpy Ethel, even after Lucille tells her that “most women don’t look like me; they look like you.” And William tries to help save Lucille’s marriage by advising her to let Desi be seen wearing the pants more often in order to affirm his Cuban masculinity.

All three of these supporting characters are sympathetic, with Simmons in particular delivering a conceptual twist on his typecast gruffness (it hides the fact that William is usually drunk). But Sorkin’s scope is too narrow to handle these ideological contradictions, and the film glosses over them with the melodrama of its double climax, complete with two dei ex machina. It works in the moment but will keep you up at night.

Aside from praise for Kidman, every evaluative point I’ve made above – from the sandboxed scenes and talking heads to the emotional realism and cultural politics – has been valued in the opposite direction by one notable critic or another in print. It’s a refreshing reminder that so-called biographical and historical “fact” is always up for interpretation.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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