There have been very few films that I have been wholly invested in until the last 30 seconds. “Snowpiercer” comes to mind. An absolute banger of a film that takes one giant leap towards the implausible in the final moments. “Being the Ricardos” somehow commits the same folly, creating a brilliant, well-written, behind-the-scenes character piece that all but crumbles in a flash as the final minute transpires. It is unfortunate, because “Being the Ricardos” is one of the most beautiful messes I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It was sharply written, overall decently paced, and really well acted. Its only real flaw is that it is too ambitious for its own good. It desperately tries to incorporate every single aspect of a very complex narrative through an extremely wide lens, and leaves a lot to be desired despite including everything it can think of. “Being the Ricardos” is a strongly crafted biopic that is powered by stellar performances and, for the most part, works in capturing a pivotal time in a culturally iconic series.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “Being the Ricardos” stars Nichole Kidman as Lucile Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. It tells the story of a pivotal moment in “I Love Lucy” history, in which Ball is accused of being a communist, and the deteriorating marriage and success of the show clashing against tabloid gossip and the Blacklist Hollywood era. The staff writers, supporting actors and executive producer all struggle to keep everything together as it becomes more and more clear that something isn’t quite right with their stars. There is an impending doom that looms over the episode they are trying to get filmed, and the film really seeks to highlight how difficult it was to complete in the face of imaginable pressure and turmoil.
That’s the best parts of “Being the Ricardos,” and encompasses what does work in the film. What doesn’t work is the talking heads, manufactured interviews spliced throughout the narrative that never seem to fit. Sure, it’s great to see the actually staff writers and showrunner recount their experiences surrounding this particular moment in time, but everything they do is so scripted it feels more like a mockumentary squeezed into a fictional dramedy. The strange cuts to fake interviews with real people seems to be more at odds with the overall tone of the film than the full inclusion of the real people who lived the tale being told. Every time we cut to the real life staff writers Madelyn Pugh (played by Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carol Jr.(played by Jake Lacy), or executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (played by Tony Hale), it feels like we are transported to an entirely different film.
It’s a strange thing too, because “Being the Ricardos” is wholly Aaron Sorkin from top to bottom. Everything about the writing and directing screams Sorkin, with that rapid fire snark and banter and comedy beautifully infused into every single scene. There is also a sense of non-fiction being told through the narrative lens of fiction, much like “The Social Network.” Real life events exaggerated through reimaginings and intentional misinterpretations. This is Sorkin’s wheelhouse, and something he has proven time and time again to be a master at. So it’s all the more confusing when he includes the real people into his fictional retelling of real life events. Especially when we are already introduced the fictional counter parts of each of these people. It feels like a documentary that was made independently of “Being the Ricardos” that was somehow obligated to be included into the film.
Sorkin has always had a knack for making the writing pop, and when the film is working, it’s firing on all cylinders. I know there’s knee jerk reaction to be opposed to Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem being cast in their respective roles, but they do a wonderful job here and really own their characters better than you may have expected. Don’t let the in show recreation stills fool you in the headlines. Kidman and Bardem and a perfect pair in every way, even when we start to uncover the imperfections in televisions most popular on screen marriage. They are also joined by an all star supporting cast, with actors like JK Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and Clark Gregg as Phillip Morris rep Howard Wenke. The performances are all top notch, and everyone seems to understand what kind of dialogue and character interaction Sorkin brings to the pages of his screenplay.
But none of that can make up for a film that is constantly at odds with itself. Sorkin doesn’t seem to know what story he wants to tell, and it changes from scene to scene with such a rapid incoherency we’re never quite sure what “Being the Ricardos” actually wants to be about. Is it about the power struggle between Ball and Arnaz? Is it about the inner workings of their troubled marriage? Is it about the relationship between its stars and the staff that worked on the show? Is it about the McCarthy era wreaking havoc on Hollywood in the 1950s? Is it about the show itself or the people that made up the show? is it about Lucy and Ricardo or Ball and Arnaz? “Being the Ricardos” can’t make up its’ mind about what it wants to be about, so it’s about everything all at once.
This is a pretty gear shift from someone who is generally in much more control over his ambition. Sorkin has proven time and time again that he is capable of telling a story like “Being the Ricardos,” and I’m not entirely sure where and how he went so far off the rails to where the film’s narrative gets away from him. And then we come to the film’s ending. I won’t spoil it, but there is some emotional and narrative undercutting that quite frankly ruins the entire film in 30 seconds or less. I mean it when I say it has a sort of “Snowpiercer” ending, where you leave the theater feeling cheated instead of triumphant. You can have a messy film as long as you stick the landing, and Sorkin has managed to pull off a weird reverse trick. Where the mess is somehow better than the landing it misses.
“Being the Ricardos” really struggles to find its footing, and never quite identifies itself as any one thing. That would be fine if it was by design a sprawling narrative of the overall series, but this is extremely specific with when and where it takes place, and crumbles under its own ambition to include as much as it possibly can into a single week leading to create a single episode. I really enjoyed the film up until the final moments, and there is a lot I would alter to make the film feel far more complete and singularly minded. This film wants to be broad and specific at the same time, and does both rather well separately but really can’t seem to balance them together as well it wants to.
There’s a lot to like about “Being the Ricardos” and I can certainly see why it will be a film that pops up on countless award nomination lists that are upcoming. It works best when it highlights the immense visual talents of Lucille Ball as she sees the episodes transpire in real time with nothing more than a script page or basic premise. And the intricate details of how hard it is to make a single episode of television is one of the more fascinating aspects of the film overall, something Sorkin is deeply familiar with. But the film falls short of greatness, and could use some more focus from its writer and director. The good news is you don’t have to be a fan of “I Love Lucy” to enjoy this film. Everything I know about the show I know peripherally and abstractly, and I was still able to grasp some of those broad brush strokes the cultural phenomenon painted across American television for its run.
I would recommend “Being the Ricardos” on Amazon Prime, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch it in a theater.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
[Editor’s Note: If you’re really interested in learning about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, there is a wonderful podcast by TCM called The Plot Thickens. Lucy’s story is covered in season three of the podcast, narrated by TCM Primetime Host Ben Mankiewicz.]