Being the Ricardos
Aaron Sorkin’s Lucille Ball biopic is a smart as ever if also emotionally distant
Aaron Sorkin is undoubtedly one of the wittiest and most intelligent screenwriters working in Hollywood. His characters are always enviously in-the-know and the smartest people in the room. Recently, Sorkin has also been transitioning into the director’s chair with films such as Molly’s Game (2017) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), and his most recent attempt at the top job has just arrived with Being the Ricardos (2021).
Being the Ricardos looks at a week in the 1950s lives of I Love Lucy (1951-1957) star couple Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) who are filming their show at the peak of its popularity. Over the course of the week (events of which have been squished together chronologically in relation to reality), Lucille is accused of being a communist, potential affairs by Desi are hinted at by the press, and Lucille’s pregnancy is fought for to be included in the show.
Sorkin’s dialogue is as zingy and fast as ever, leading you to wonder if he can ever write a simpleton. Sorkin has fun when traversing the studio politics and the berating creative process of Lucille as she crafts the show; this certainly pulls from the type of quick-thinking characters that Sorkin made so iconic in the likes of The Social Network (2010) and The West Wing (1999-2006). The American filmmaker is very intent on honoring the genius behind Lucille Ball and show how underappreciated she was as an artist. Being the Ricardos certainly triumphs in this aspect, and in showing the chaotic beauty that the Hollywood creative process can sometimes be.
However, Sorkin seems to get bogged down, as many of his other films do, in choosing wit over emotion. Being the Ricardos and Lucille’s journey as a character are particularly primed for an emotional journey, but Sorkin is too restless to ever let his film simply “breathe.” The American filmmaker’s style can sometimes work for the more cold and calculated storylines of a courtroom drama or the halls of congress, but when it comes to a family story and the struggle of a woman against a doubting system, it can leave the core elements of Being the Ricardos in the cold.
Much criticism was doled out to Kidman for her casting in this film, for her lack of looking like Ball herself. However, Kidman’s performance is sure to shut many mouths and haters, as she absolutely takes over this entire film. Unlike some other of her cast-members, Kidman is able to navigate Sorkin’s script of witticisms and smart jabs with a layered and complex interior. You sense the rumblings within Lucille’s character, as her creative and personal sides clash. Other cast members are able to straddle this line as well, such as a great Nina Arianda as actress Vivian Vance or Alia Shawkwat as screenwriter Madelyn Pugh. Kidman’s co-protagonist on the other hand isn’t able to escape a paring down. Bardem seems to be confined in a role that Hollywood has been adamant to put him in for a while, that of “boisterous Latino.” This seems to be a character that Bardem is comfortable in, but that makes his fans tap their foots impatiently, knowing he is capable of so much more. Desi’s character is clearly not one that Sorkin is very interested in either, leaving Bardem’s entire presence to feel like a mere afterthought or even obstruction in the narrative.
In the end, Being the Ricardos seems to fill the beats of an expected biopic, and Sorkin delivers his usual rat-a-tat dialogue. However, Sorkin seems to be struggling as a director to balance his smart structure with an emotional core. Kidman can salvage some of the director’s failings in this film, but you can’t always rely on having one of the world’s best actresses with you always.