Film review: Being the Ricardos a little contrived, but more compelling

Could a series of three crises dethrone America’s first and arguably most potent power couple of entertainment at the apex of their glory? A Red scare, a pregnancy, and rumors of marital infidelity all emerge at the same time to threaten the sitcom of sitcoms I Love Lucy, as well as the marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Will the show survive — and will success prove its own undoing?

Amazon goes top-drawer in its recent drama Being the Ricardos, both in production quality and in casting. Aaron Sorkin wrote the script, which viewers could probably tell even without reading the credits. His typically snappy dialogue works even better in this period piece, with that era’s films (if not necessarily its television shows) defined by rapid banter in both dramas and comedies. Being the Ricardos has some of both, but mainly relies on the dramatic tension between Lucy, Desi, their producers and writers, and their sponsor Philip Morris.

The film gets framed in part as a docudrama, which helps deal with the overwhelming familiarity that viewers will already have with this material. All three of these crises played out in public, albeit at different times rather than all together. Sorkin’s structure gives us the added benefit of seeing veterans Ronny Cox, Linda Lavin, and John Rubinstein playing older versions of the I Love Lucy creative team, slipping us some necessary exposition in the form of insider-gossip revelations.

The real key for Being the Ricardos, and its best assets, are Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. The material moves back and forth in time, requiring the actors to play both older and somewhat younger versions of the characters, transitions that are believable and easy enough to follow. Just as their television show would never have worked without the real Lucy and Desi, Being the Ricardos might not have worked without Kidman and Bardem. It’s their relationship crisis that really grabs us, much more so than the other two crises that Sorkin arranges in tandem.

Kidman plays Lucy as a hard-as-nails businesswoman in the entertainment industry, which certainly proved to be the case, as well as a vulnerable woman watching her dreams of “home” potentially disintegrate. Bardem’s Desi clearly adores Lucy, but also is somewhat trapped by his own ideas of “home” and manhood. JK Simmons’ William Frawley is both a cantankerous problem to be solved and a rather insightful confidante at times, through whom we get that insight into Desi more than through Bardem himself.

And now for some quibbles, which never amount to obstacles. Without being too revealing, the pregnancy crisis resolves mostly as a comic-relief subplot, which works well in connection to the other two more significant crises. Another crisis involving Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) was real enough — she detested Frawley and resented being a frump for the show — but it feels a bit like crisis overload. Alia Shawkat does a terrific job as well as Madelyn Pugh, but mostly seems to be present to underscore the difficulty that women had in exerting power during that time. And that’s also very true enough, but it detracts from another sub-crisis involving Desi and his own lack of recognition in relation to Lucy. That makes this a bit confusing, at least thematically, but hardly is fatal to the enterprise.

Some mild spoilers:

The Red Scare crisis was also true, but Hollywood’s fed at this trough repeatedly over the decades, and it’s gotten tiresome (although read on for Sorkin’s surprising balance). It’s even more tiresome when Hollywood has essentially sold itself out to China as a propaganda machine, one that has derailed one major star’s career and probably more than a few others. It doesn’t help that the deus ex machina resolution to this crisis in Being the Ricardos stretches plausibility well past the breaking point. (Without spoilers here but there are in the links: Sorkin insists it’s true, but there’s no evidence for it and it would certainly have made news at the time if it had actually happened.) Even without that foreknowledge, the climax feels like an enormous cheat. In real life, Ball had to deal with the House Un-American Activities Committee twice, but otherwise suffered no career damage over her one-time voter registration in the Communist Party.

What this doesn’t do, unlike other Hollywood efforts, is overindulge in didactics on the Red Scare basis — and actually offers some balance. It certainly doesn’t paint HUAC in any favorable light, but the script doesn’t treat the communists sympathetically either. Desi blows up over communist sympathizers in a scene with Simmons in which he tells Frawley about how his family lost everything to the Cuban communists. He also angrily responds to Lucy’s insistence that she was just honoring her grandfather’s worker sympathies by forcefully declaring that both she and her grandfather were wrong about the communists. It’s a rare moment of balance in such representations, and Sorkin deserves credit for supplying it.

Spoilers over:

And even with these contrivances, along with the necessary time compression for any two-hour biopic, Being the Ricardos is still compelling and very much worth watching. If you’re a fan of I Love Lucy, you’ll get a look at the amount of effort and craft that Ball and Arnaz put into each scene, as well as a renewed appreciation for their technical innovations and brilliance. Mostly, though, the performances of the entire cast and especially Kidman and Bardem will grab your attention and keep it throughout the film. If you want a way to ring in the new year, this blast from the past is worth celebrating.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Being the Ricardos gets a 3:

  • 4 – Buy the film/subscribe to the service
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Note: There is no extra charge for rental/purchase for those already subscribing to Amazon Prime, so the 3 is perhaps a bit of a non-sequitur. It’s still the best approximation of my rating for the film. I wouldn’t sign up for Amazon Prime to watch it, but I wouldn’t wait for it to migrate to other platforms either.

Being the Ricardos gets an R rating from the MPAA, presumably for language, smoking, and some non-explicit sexual situations. It’s appropriate for older teens and maybe younger teens with some parental context. It would likely bore anyone younger and wouldn’t be appropriate for their viewing regardless.

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