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‘Being the Ricardos’ loves Lucy

December 13, 2021
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There are two kinds of biopics – you’ve got your cradle-to-grave and you’ve got your slice of life. Both have their merits, though if pressed, I’d probably cop to preferring the latter. Rather than trying to lay out a whole life story, we get a chance to get to know the person or persons in question more specifically during a moment in time.

“Being the Ricardos” – the latest from writer/director Aaron Sorkin – is an example of that latter type of biopic, revolving primarily around a single tumultuous week in the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the people around them. We see other moments as well, all of it framed (rather ingeniously, honestly) through a documentary-style device, but for the most part, it’s this one week that is the focus.

Starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucy and Desi, respectively, the film gives us a look inside their lives, both personally and professionally. We see them at home and on set, in the past and in the present (along with some looks back from the future). It is clever and touching, a well-made film that offers a degree of insight into what it meant to be these people at this time in their lives.

And it’s pretty great.

Now, if you’re here in the deluded hope that the madcap physical energy of Lucille Ball is going to be recreated here, you’re going to be a bit disappointed. But that’s not the point of the movie, nor would it be fair to ask any performer to try and replicate Lucy’s unique gifts. Instead, we get to see her as the power player and perfectionist that she was behind the scenes, someone who used her obvious talents to get to a place where she could take advantage of her subtler ones.

In the mid-1950s, there was no more popular program on television than “I Love Lucy.” The show – which starred real-life couple Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) – was watched by some 60 million viewers every Monday night.

Of course, a show like this isn’t the responsibility of just two people. You’ve got showrunner Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) leading writers like Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy). There are the co-stars – William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play Fred and Ethel Mertz. And of course, there are the various and sundry executives, both for the CBS network and for show sponsor Phillip Morris.

Making a show like this is a frantic, breakneck process under the best of circumstances. However, this particular week is altogether more – word has leaked that 20 years prior, as a young woman, Lucy might have registered as a member of the Communist Party. In the time of HUAC, that’s no small thing. Plus, there’s a tabloid story floating around about Desi cheating on Lucy; though it’s pretty easily debunked, Lucy is left with lingering doubt.

In this politically-charged time, even the hint of Communist leanings could be enough to torpedo the show. This of course leads to a number of conversations with the assorted executive types – conversations that are rendered all the more difficult thanks to an unrelated revelation from Lucy and Desi, along with the demands that accompany said revelation.

And through it all, we watch as Lucy projects all of her perfectionism onto the episode in front of them, causing tensions to arise between her and the rest of the creative team.

As the story unfolds, we move back and forth in time, seeing key moments in the relationship between Lucy and Desi. This movement is facilitated by the documentary framing device, where we see older versions of Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein), Carroll (Ronny Cox) and Pugh (Linda Lavin) as talking heads, taking us through the dramatic beats of that long-past time.

“Being the Ricardos” is a compelling glimpse into the lives of its principals while also offering some perspective on what it meant to make a TV show back in the nascent days of the medium. It’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking “I Love Lucy” was in so many ways, both in front of the camera and behind it – this movie is largely able to point them out without belaboring the issue.

It’s an odd marriage, this idea of the madcap physicality of Lucille Ball with the densely-packed dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, but it works. There’s a high-speed intensity to the proceedings that translates well, both in terms of the relationship dynamics and the workplace drama. Meanwhile, on the directorial side, Sorkin makes some quality choices – the documentary framing device works well, as do some of the aesthetic decisions (his visualization of Lucy’s creative process is smart and distinctive).

But this was always going to come down to casting. There was some uproar when Kidman was cast in this role – a LOT of people had opinions about her suitability (including myself). But the truth is that she’s very good here – she finds some nice delineations between Lucille the person and Lucy the performer, both vocally and physically. And Sorkin minimizes the demands regarding the slapstick – you’re never going to recapture that magic, so why push? Plus, Bardem absolutely slays as Desi; he has a robust energy that is mesmerizing to watch. He’s charming, he’s quick – and he can sing. Just a phenomenal performance from him. The supporting cast slays as well. Simmons is outstanding as William Frawley; he might be my favorite part of this whole thing. Arianda is great too. Hale, Lacy and particularly Shawkat are excellent – there’s a period vibe to their interactions that works beautifully. Honestly, every performance is at the least solid.

“Being the Ricardos” might not be quite what people want or expect from a Lucy/Desi biopic project, but that’s okay. It’s still a smart, well-written film populated by talented actors giving strong performances, all beneath a veneer of midcentury sensibilities.

I love Lucy. You love Lucy. And so does “Being the Ricardos.”

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 December 2021 12:51

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