From A Few Good Men, to The West Wing, to The Social Network, to The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin kind of has the golden touch. The closest thing to a black sheep in his filmography is the short-lived Studio 60, which critics initially praised. By the end of its only season, though, everyone seemed to turn on Studio 60, deeming it too serious and self-righteous for a show about a comedy program. It didn’t help that Studio 60premiered around the same time as a much better sketch comedy satire, 30 Rock. Flaws aside, the dramatic side of comedy is an intriguing concept to explore. With Being the Ricardos, Sorkin has finally tapped into what he was trying to accomplish with Studio 60.
Although Lucy and Desi remain among the most iconic comedy couples, their marriage wasn’t all fun, games, and chocolates. They endured several hurdles, including Ball’s communist accusations, integrating Little Ricky’s birth into I Love Lucy, and especially Arnaz’s infidelity. Yet, Lucy and Desi were among the most progressive celebrity couples of the era. While they couldn’t share the same bed on-screen, Lucy and Desi helped normalize seeing interracial couples on TV. Both supported each other’s careers at a time when women were expected to put their aspirations on hold. For all the new ground they broke, the two still fell into familiar traps that come with celebrity marriages.
Sorkin covers all of this, albeit with creative liberties. Namely, he condenses several years’ worth of controversies into one crazy production week. The screenplay comes with his signature Sorkin-isms, which can at times come off as pretentious. Overall, though, the narrative structure serves the material and pacing well. While the dialogue leans towards drama, it provides the wit and sass missing from Studio 60. Most importantly, Sorkin resists the temptation to put Lucy and Desi on soapboxes. Although they weren’t strangers to politics, Lucy and Desi’s main goal was to put on a good show. That’s what they do in Being the Ricardos while also overcoming several scandals.
Usually, the screenplay is the true star of any Sorkin project. Sorkin has crafted a clever script, but Being the Ricardos belongs to the ensemble. Although Javier Bardem doesn’t look exactly like Desi Arnaz, he captures the charming entertainer, the surprisingly savvy producer, and the flawed husband. Nina Arianda, meanwhile, is the spitting image of Vivian Vance, whose glamor is behind an unflattering wardrobe. J. K. Simmons nails it as William Frawley, who resents his TV wife while providing fatherly wisdom to his TV neighbors. The most integral casting boils down to Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball.
Despite sharing a resemblance, many were concerned that Kidman didn’t have the comedic chops to convincingly play Ball. Some of her previous attempts at comedy (Bewitched, The Stepford Wives) didn’t scream, “Vitameatavegamin.” As a look behind the curtain, though, Being the Ricardos plays to Kidman’s strengths. Kidman brings out a side of Ball rarely seen on camera: the perfectionist, the resilient businesswoman, the woman struggling to keep her marriage together and show on the air. When Kidman needs to bring the funny, she defies expectations. While Kidman succeeds in recreating Ball’s lovable TV persona, she also brings out her firecracker, sharp-tongued side. Beyond the spot-on makeup design, Kidman becomes Ball with a voice that’s somewhere between her high-pitched youth and gravely older years. Kidman makes the film in a Best Actress caliber role, finding the line between Lucille and Lucy.