BEING THE RECARDOS Movie Poster | ©2021 Amazon

BEING THE RECARDOS Movie Poster | ©2021 Amazon

Rating: R
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Release Date: December 10, 2021

BEING THE RICARDOS is about a very stressful week in the life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, played here respectively by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin also includes plentiful flashbacks and some flash-forwards to underscore points he wants to make.

Sorkin’s ambitions with BEING THE RICARDOS are admirable. He wants us to get to know Ball and Arnaz, as individuals, as a couple, and as artists. He wants us to also get to know the people around them who helped shape their extraordinarily successful 1951-1957 CBS comedy series I LOVE LUCY (which was followed by the 1957-1960 THE LUCY-DESI COMEDY HOUR). He wants to give us a sense of the ground broken by Ball and Arnaz, and the challenges they faced. He wants us to understand the times that shaped them.

All of these goals are addressed in BEING THE RICARDOS, with varying effectiveness. Containing all of those topics is a lot to ask of a two-hours-plus running time, especially when the issues don’t all dovetail neatly together and the style fluctuates somewhat.

In BEING THE RICARDOS, two newspaper articles and one fact of life all hit at the same time. Columnist Walter Winchell implies on his radio show that Ball is a Communist, while the House Un-American Activities Committee is in full swing, eagerly engaging in its anti-liberal crusade. This is later amplified in print. Meanwhile, a tabloid suggests that Ricardo is having extramarital affairs. Finally, Ball is pregnant while I LOVE LUCY is in production, at a time when pregnancy was neither shown nor mentioned on TV.

This last aspect is the most successful. Sorkin deploys wit and intelligence in his depiction of how Ball and Arnaz, singly and together, do battle with the network censors.

While not groundbreaking, Sorkin also paints a credible picture of the workings of a TV show: the power struggle between star, director and producer, squabbling writers, feuding actors, and so on. J. K. Simmons as cranky costar William Frawley and Nina Arianda as demoralized performer Vivian Vance are both standouts. Tony Hale also scores as I LOVE LUCY creator/producer Jess Oppenheimer, who resents being undervalued by Ball.

BEING THE RICARDOS also boasts gorgeous cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, period-authentic production design by Jon Hutman and expert costume design by Susan Lyall.

There are a number of problems, though. One is a misstatement at the start, when a character tells us that, in the week covered by BEING THE RICARDOS, Lucy and Desi almost lost their lives. This primes us for a particular kind of event that never occurs. When it doesn’t, other dramatic developments fall a little short in comparison.

The film attempts to take on more topics than it has time to explore. Viewers who don’t know about the House Un-American Activities Committee are unlikely to learn much here. Those who do know are likely to wonder how Ball and Arnaz viewed the Committee’s attacks on so many of their peers in Hollywood. The closest we get is Arnaz denouncing the Communist insurgents who attacked his home – does he really equate a homicidal militia with blacklisted pacifist screenwriters?

The flashback romance between Ball and Arnaz in their pre-LUCY days, and the couple’s backstage marriage during the show, are both handled in the manner of a ‘50s drama. It’s retro without being enlightening, and doesn’t seem of a piece with some other parts of the movie.

Then there is the casting of the leads. While Bardem comes off as at once more solid and more dangerous than Arnaz did, the actor’s interpretation serves the material. Kidman, while made to look a lot like Ball, has a meditative, observant quality that doesn’t fully mesh with either our memories of the real person or with how other characters react to her. If this depiction of Ball is what the filmmakers intended, it isn’t quite at home in the surroundings created in BEING THE RICARDOS. It’s not that Kidman is doing anything wrong – she creates a coherent persona – but the rest of the movie is operating at a different speed.

BEING THE RICARDOS is never dull, and it’s swell to look at, but we come away with the impression that we’ve gotten curated clips rather than the full story.

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