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Arts & Culture

'Being the Ricardos' takes a legendary comedienne seriously, with mixed results

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star in <em>Being the Ricardos.</em>
Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star in <em>Being the Ricardos.</em>

Do you know about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the pioneering couple and creative team who became two of television history's most influential figures?

Have you seen, maybe, a handful of I Love Lucy episodes here and there?

Can you instantly recognize the scene where Lucy gets drunk as a skunk off of Vitameatavegamin, or Ricky's sing-song-y way of announcing, "Lu-CY, I'm ho-O-me!"?

Do you poop out at parties????

(Actually – ignore that last question.)

Perhaps you answered 'no' to one or more of these questions, and your frame of reference for anything Lucy-related is fuzzy – it's been 70 years since the show first premiered, after all – or just plain nonexistent. (I'm not sure if the youths these days are seeking it out on the various streaming platforms where it's available, and as of this writing, there are no upcoming TV listings to be found.) Ball's comedic genius behind-the-scenes, Arnaz's astute business acumen, their incredibly successful partnership as co-owners of Desilu – those details about their legacy are hardly on your radar, maybe.

Well, if you feel as though you fall into this camp, Being the Ricardos might just turn out to be a satisfying experience.

It's a biopic of sorts, starring Nicole Kidman as "America's favorite redhead" and Javier Bardem as the Cuban-American bandleader who loved her. (Add the Spanish Bardem's casting to the list of movies this year that have continued Hollywood's age-old tradition of casting Latino parts with seemingly little regard for the characters' countries of origin or cultural background.) While the title suggests a narrative all about the making of I Love Lucy and the toll its overwhelming popularity had on the stars' marriage, it's a bit of a misdirect, because the Ricardos and that famed sitcom remain firmly in the backdrop of Aaron Sorkin's oft-clunky screenplay, which he also directed.

Instead the viewer gets something trying to be a lot of other things at once, most notably an unsanitized marriage study and an unconventional biopic. It doesn't fully succeed on either front, because at the end of the day it's still Sorkin at his Sorkin-iest (little subtlety, some mansplaining) — but there's enough grounding and commitment in the performances of Kidman, Bardem, and the rest of the cast to keep things interesting, especially if you don't know or care too much about the actual facts involving Lucy and Desi's lives and careers.

When I say there's a lot going on here, I'm referring in part to the abundance of history and lore Sorkin attempts to pack into this movie that probably should've been a miniseries. Exhibit A: At its center is a plotline taking place over the course of a single production week for I Love Lucy, where three significant events in the Ball-Arnaz saga converge to keep the stakes high, as if they were factory-made chocolates careening by on a relentless conveyor belt: The publication of a front-page story in Hollywood gossip rag Confidential featuring a photo of the couple and the headline "Does Desi Really Love Lucy?"; the unexpected news of Ball's pregnancy, which poses a conundrum for the show's writers; and a Walter Winchell news report revealing Ball registered as a member of the communist party in the 1930s.

Lucy and Desi are trying to stamp out or contain each of these fires which are threatening to burn down the most popular show of its time (tens of millions of viewers tuned in every week throughout I Love Lucy's six-season run) while in the midst of rehearsals and staging for that week's Season 2 episode, "Fred and Ethel Fight." (The Red Scare-era Winchell report, unsurprisingly, has the greatest potential to ruin their careers.)

Sorkin is playing fast and loose with timelines here – the Confidential article didn't drop until a few years later in 1955, while the communist accusations arose during production of the Season 3 episode "The Girls Go Into Business" – but as a tool of dramatic license, condensing the events into just a few days feels exciting on its surface, and could make for a fast-paced and thrilling workplace drama.

Occasionally, it is. Kidman and Bardem hardly vanish into the roles, but their dynamic is vibrant and specific enough to scratch the surface of Ball and Arnaz's well-documented fraught and electric relationship. Theirs is a pendulum operating between modes and moods frantically; they bicker, show affection, and, sometimes, rage – well, Lucy rages, because Desi can't seem to keep it in his pants. Perhaps most importantly, they unite to strategize how to keep this ever-growing empire, and their marriage, afloat.

There's also interesting tension percolating between Lucy and the show's long-time writers, Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), and Bob Carroll, Jr. (Jake Lacy), as well as Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), with whom Ball had a tempestuous life-long friendship. In their best moments, the friction between colleagues and peers crackles with intensity, like when Vivian confronts Lucy for meticulously monitoring her diet and wardrobe. (There have long been unproven rumors that Vance's contract stipulated that Ethel appear heavier than Lucy.) But Sorkin's script also squanders the chemistry just as often, particularly a scene between Lucy and Madelyn, the only woman writer on the team, with overly blunt discourse around whether or not I Love Lucy is good for feminism.

And then there's Exhibit B of doing a lot: On top of all of these crises and colleague disputes is a convoluted framing device involving a flash-forward, with numerous flash-back sequences(!). Older versions of Pugh, Oppenheimer, and Carroll (played by Linda Lavin, John Rubinstein, and Ronny Cox respectively) appear as talking heads being interviewed for a retrospective years later; they recount Lucy and Desi's meet-cute, courtship, and professional stumbling blocks prior to I Love Lucy.

These are details that even the most casual Lucy fans will already be familiar with, and add little emotional context for the state of the couple's relationship long after the honeymoon was over. (Do we really need to hear Desi prophetically proclaim Lucy a star on their very first night together when his unwavering support of her career is already so clearly and eloquently communicated elsewhere?) The non-linear-ish storytelling doesn't conceal the fact that Being the Ricardos turns out to be more of a conventional by-the-numbers biopic than its creator may have intended. Again, if this is the approach, this could've been a miniseries.

As it is though, it's a well-acted, sometimes engaging glimpse of a storied couple and the show that forever altered the landscape of TV. I Love Lucy diehards might admire the performances while finding little fresh insight into the couple and the magnitude of their work. For everyone else, Being the Ricardos is a nice, if two-dimensional, primer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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