Aiming for complexity, ‘Being the Ricardos’ reduces comic genius to maudlin gibberish 

click to enlarge Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star in Being the Ricardos. - GLEN WILSON / AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC
  • Glen Wilson / Amazon Content Services LLC
  • Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star in Being the Ricardos.

Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos isn’t great for reasons that are interesting, and is downright bad for reasons that are, perhaps, even more interesting. Depicting one week in the production life of I Love Lucy after Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) has been smeared as a Communist by the tabloids, the film explores the anxieties of the “Red Scare” along with the rising tensions in the marriage between Lucy and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), whose “wild nights” with other women have also just swept the gossip headlines, and at the same time his wife has learned she is pregnant. Condensing true events spanning a handful of years into one fateful week in 1952, the movie seems to have been conceived as both a character study and survey of McCarthy-era turmoil. What it actually comes across as is a messy, unconvincing, often saccharin account of one of the fascinating couples in Hollywood history.

“My face, my body, my voice — that’s all I get to work with,” Ball tells a colleague on the set of her show. But her face is exactly what Kidman cannot deliver, and not for lack of trying. For anyone to replicate Ball’s wacky brilliance, comic facial contortions, and beautifully unflattering physicality as Lucy Ricardo would be a daunting feat. Hand the challenge to a 54-year-old actor whose visage has been plumped and filled, buffed, and ironed of signs of age or visible quirks, whose facial musculature has likely been frozen for at least the past two decades, and it is well nigh impossible, prosthetic or not, to approximate anything close to Ball’s likeness. In the black and white scenes meant to depict the television sitcom, Kidman’s attempt to make her face do anything over-the-top is almost physically painful to witness, like watching a woman with toothpick arms try to carry a shovel. Why not cast a physically gifted actor like Kristen Wiig or Amy Adams? To women on the fence about cosmetic interventions, Kidman’s face on screen serves as a palpable cautionary tale: This is your future. Or rather, this is what it looks like to have frozen your past.

But Kidman’s casting cannot be blamed for the failure of the film. The choice to hand Sorkin the script is at least equally questionable, if initially intriguing. For a writer best known for witty, rapid-fire dialogue amidst high-stakes contexts, perhaps the McCarthy-era backdrop of Being the Ricardos felt apropos. Sorkin is a more earnest David Mamet, a neoliberal optimist whose message is almost always more conservative than first it seems. For a middlebrow prestige flick released early December, such a sensibility might seem suitable, if requisite; the Academy adores the moderately liberal biopic. But Sorkin’s overemphasis on lengthy retorts and snappy conversation distracts from what made Ball a genius, what made I Love Lucy a show with unprecedented mass appeal: her slapstick timing. For a film ostensibly about “being the Ricardos,” it is remarkably, almost willfully, unfunny.

The film is also strangely didactic, even for a biopic. Interspliced into the narrative diegesis appear relics from CBS’s past — Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh — pontificating poolside about how important I Love Lucy was to prime time television, chronicling their contradicting experiences of Arnaz and Ball to the beat of a schmaltzy jazz score. Except, those onscreen aren’t actually the genuine big-wigs; rather, they are performed by actors appearing as though in full-throttle talking head mode. One would hope that a screenwriter of Sorkin’s acclaim could find a way to convey all of this relevant historical content through his actual script (the man has an Oscar and nine Emmys, after all). But, no: Instead, he delivers a documentary-style treatise every twenty minutes on why Lucy, Desi, and the whole 1952 HUAC shebang were so downright important.

The one redeeming note in the film might be Nina Arianda’s portrayal of Vivian Vance, the actor who played Ethel. Arianda nails embodying the complicated relationship Vance had to both her ostensibly homely character and co-star William Frawley (played by J.K. Simmons). Aside from facial resemblance, Arianda transforms from sexy, limber thirty-something into frumpy Ethel in no time flat, throwing into relief how much the “Ethel” archetype was a performance, and a misogynistic one at that.

Perhaps most insufferable is the film’s climax, based on true events, but (again willfully!) seeming to ignore the sociohistorical complexities that undergirded Cold War media paranoia. After learning that members of the press will be present at their live recording, Desi decides to “warm up” the crowd with an explanation of how his wife, their prime-time patron saint, has been wrongly accused of communism because she “checked the wrong box” twenty years earlier. And by whom is Lucy exonerated before a flurry of panicked faces? By none other than J. Edgar Hoover himself — the same homophobic, racist, and maniacal head of the FBI responsible for stalking Martin Luther King, Jr., hunting the Black Panthers, and, more broadly, stamping out civil liberties wherever it was possible. After Desi phones him in front of their studio audience to clear Lucy of communist affiliations, the crowd erupts into teary applause, one of the past century’s most corrupt leaders sanctified as a hero.

For those with a love for Lucy, read her autobiography or check out Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz from your local public library. Or just stream some reruns with Mom and Dad and laugh up your living room like you all once did as a kid. If Lucy checked “the wrong box” in 1936, Being the Ricardos holds the unenviable status of checking none of the right ones.

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