Seen: 27th December
The I Love Lucy show might be one of the biggest TV shows in history, not just in terms of ratings but in influence on the comedy landscape. Every single sitcom since then has wanted nothing more than to be even half as important as I Love Lucy – and very few matched it. The power couple of Lucy and Desi Arnez created a trailblazing show that changed television forever, while also dealing with a whirlwind of a marriage and many problems in their personal andprofessional lives. That fascinating period in TV history is the foundation for Being the Ricardos which is certainly an interesting take on this time but I’m not sure if it’s a great take.
Being the Ricardos focuses on one week during the production of the I Love Lucy show, specifically the March 1952 episode “Fred and Ethel Fight”, where everything just seems to be going wrong. Not only is Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) having to deal with a scandal involving her marriage to Desi Arnez (Javier Bardem), but she also has to deal with her own former registration as part of the Communist party which had her testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. On top of all this, Lucy is pregnant and wants to put her real-life pregnancy into a show at a time when you can’t even say the word pregnant on television. It’s an absolute chaotic week that will test the relationship of America’s favourite couple.
On a very surface level, Being the Ricardos is pretty good. While the casting of the two leads would be questionable if this were a straight adaptation of the sitcom, Nicole and Javier do a pretty good job of playing the real Lucy and Desi (At least, according to the real-life daughter of Lucy and Desi who I feel is the ultimate arbiter of how good they are at being the real people) and their supporting cast, particularly J.K Simmons as William Frawley and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance are nothing short of scene-stealing every time (Especially J.K who just can’t help but pull focus every time he opens his mouth). There’s a lot of fun moments to have here… the problem is that Aaron Sorkin is a very specific kind of writer and his choices make for some problems.
Being the Ricardos is not a straightforward biopic trying to tell things as they happened. It’s certainly giving an essence, but there is plenty of liberty taken with things like time. There was never a week like this on the I Love Lucy set, far as we know. Certainly not the week they taped the episode in question — it couldn’t be, because Lucy only talked to that committee in April of 1952 and September of 53, so that’s out. The pregnancy timing would’ve been off (Desi, the baby in question, was born in Jan of 53 and Being the Ricardos makes the point to say Lucy is 3 months along… so, that’s a year-long pregnancy). This happens a lot, small, weird time inconsistencies that throw off anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of this show.
Speaking of inconsistencies, there is a bit of a tone problem. The fast-paced Sorkin dialogue that fires back and forth like a tennis match on uppers can create some genuinely good moments but then we have to stop and deal with one of the half dozen serious plots we’ve brought up. When Being the Ricardos is just about the regular week on set, with Lucy trying her best to make the show as good as it can be and just showing the dynamics of this set the film is genuinely something special. The banter is fun and playful, there are plenty of stakes to make it exciting and you get a glimpse behind the curtain of this mega-hit… but then we have to go back to talking about Communism or Desi’s affairs or the pregnancy (which honestly kind of gets forgotten) and it just feels like they’re forcing things.
Then there are the moments where Being the Ricardos just tries to be a straight biopic of Lucy’s career, showing the occasional random flashback to her days on the radio or when she loses her RKO contract which are interesting moments but they don’t factor into the main plot. They feel like remnants of a version of this film that would’ve just told Lucy’s story from her humble roots as a background actor to the star of the biggest show on television, like Sorkin wrote those scenes and loved them too much to get rid of them when he changed the structure.
You can almost see the potential for a fun new take on the biopic here, especially with the inclusion of “interviews’ with people who knew the Ricardos. There’s the hint of a great biopic (and this is coming from a known biopic hater) but that weird time and tone issue just kill Being the Ricardos. What we’re left with is just a bunch of genuinely good performances that are trying to do what they can with confusing material that just doesn’t live up to its potential. The week-long timeframe for the film could’ve been fun if we stuck to that timeline, but we don’t.
Being the Ricardos tries desperately to have it both ways every time it comes to making a decision and it never works. Do we do a small timeline of a full career retrospective? Let’s do both. Should we be dead serious or a rapid-fire comedy? Why not do both? Should we be about the personal relationship of the main characters or the political issues surrounding them? Porque no los dos?
By trying to do too much, Being the Ricardos can’t really connect and that makes the flaws of everything else stand out more. There’s certainly something here to enjoy and the praise for the performances is justified, but it’s also not hard to see why it’s not going to work for some. Maybe someday we’ll get the truly great Lucy biopic that the world deserves, we’ll just have to settle for the pretty good one for now.