Once upon a time in television history over 40 million people would spend their Monday evenings tuned into CBS to watch “I Love Lucy”. The half-hour sitcom ran from October 15, 1951 to May 6, 1957 and for four of its six years (including its final year) it was the most watched show on television. The show’s stars, real-life husband and wife Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, quickly became household names for a variety of reasons.
Wordsmith Aaron Sorkin takes on a slice of the TV couple’s life in his new film “Being the Ricardos”. This isn’t your conventional biopic so those looking for such might leave this movie disappointed. But with its more zoomed-in focus, Sorkin’s knack for snappy dialogue, and some knockout performances, “Being the Ricardos” offers a zesty peep into the charismatic couple and the creative process which brought their beloved show to life.
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are wonderful stepping into the skins of the titular celebrity duo. The movie gives a couple of flashback sequences noting their early years together, but the story mostly unfolds over one particularly stressful production week of “I Love Lucy”. Sorkin’s script nimbly weaves together both Lucille and Desi’s personal and professional relationships (which were often inseparable in real-life).
One of the real treats of the film is the behind-the-scenes look it gives into the making of an episode of “I Love Lucy”. There is a terrific table reading sequence where we get a good sense Lucille’s brutal honesty compared to Desi’s more subtle authority. It’s also where we’re introduced to the witty and hard-drinking William Frawley (played with awards-worthy panache by J.K. Simmons) and the snarky Vivian Vance (a really good Nina Arianda). Frawley and Vance played Fred and Ethel Mertz on the show, the Ricardos’ best friends.
Along the way Sorkin shows us Lucy and Desi butting heads with longtime producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale). We see their occasionally tempestuous run-ins with their writing team. And then there’s the sometimes combative shoots especially between Lucy and director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham). These scenes are often mixed with these strange documentary-styled interview segments where actors play older versions of the production team recalling their time working with Lucille and Desi. Much better are the incredibly detailed black-and-white recreations of some of the show’s most memorable moments.
While Sorkin’s timeline may differ from the actual account, he does pack in a number of defining points from Lucille and Desi’s relationship and their career together. There are references to Lucille’s time stuck as a contract player at RKO Pictures and to Desi’s family fleeing Cuba for Miami in 1933. He also digs into the accusations that Lucille was a communist, something that was reported by the media despite its lack of credibility.
The movie’s attempts at covering Lucille and Desi’s strained marriage is noble but not as well-rounded as the TV stuff. It’s never insincere and there are several heartfelt moments. But by limiting its overall scope, the movie doesn’t leave itself much space to do more than highlight their highs and lows. Regardless, both Kidman and Bardem are magnetic, pulling us deeper into their characters’ story than the script sometimes allows.
Again, “Being the Ricardos” may disappoint those hoping for an exhaustive biography of one of television’s most famous couples. This isn’t that kind movie nor does it ever try to be. But it does give us a good sense of who Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were at this point in their marriage and careers. It’s also richly entertaining with crackling dialogue and a cast who burrow into these characters and bring both them and the era to life. “Being the Ricardos” is getting a limited theater release before premiering December 21st on Amazon Prime.