OK, when I first heard about Aaron Sorkin’s new film, Being the Ricardos, I hesitated, particularly when I found out Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem were playing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz–they’re not the first people who come to mind when I picture a Lucy-Desi biopic. I don’t picture anyone in a Lucy-Desi biopic because I don’t think they lend themselves to biopics, but here we are.
Nicole is always elegant with piercing eyes and very delicate features, plus she’s an icon in her own right. Lucy, on the other hand, had showy features. Big statement hair, big statement eyes, and big statement lips. She could do things with her face that have probably made Jim Carrey envious. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem is certainly a terrific actor and very charming, but Desi Arnaz had perfect screen idol features while Bardem looks like a handsome prizefighter.
So right off the bat I was skeptical, and had to go into the film telling myself to keep an open mind. Over and over and over again.
What I liked about the film is that it kept the story manageable. Instead of trying to squish every single detail of Ball and Arnaz’s lives into two hours and twelve minutes, it focuses on a single week in 1952. Lucy and Desi not only find out Lucy’s been accused of Communist sympathies but she and Desi announce her pregnancy with Desi, Jr., and oh yeah, there’s a show to plan and shoot. It’s a busy week.
From beginning to end there are little flashbacks of Arnaz and Ball’s careers and their lives before the show, with the film effectively jumping backward and forward between the present and the past. The pacing moves along nicely, winding up with two plot bombs at the end.
There’s so much done right in this movie. The casting is great; everyone played their roles to the hilt. For me, JK Simmons as William Frawley and Tony Hale as Jess Oppenheimer both knocked it out of the park. Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance was also very good. Speaking of Tony Hale, I got a kick out of seeing him play opposite his fellow Arrested Development alum Alia Shawkat as writer Madelyn Pugh, only Hale’s Jess is the furthest type possible from Buster Bluth. It just goes to show how talented the guy really is.
And what of our two leads? They play their parts well. Kidman is a feisty Lucy, Bardem is, again, charming, and he makes a gamely fun go at Babalu music. I liked that the film shows their creative process. Lucy had a great sense of what would play and what wouldn’t; the film shows her working out the bits in her head and measuring audience reaction.
It can’t be underestimated how revolutionary I Love Lucy really was. It was about an interracial couple, which was unheard of on TV back then. It was the first time the word “pregnant” was uttered on prime time. And the show was filmed, which was hugely unusual.
The problem is, I couldn’t forget that I was watching Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. I think it’s because Lucy and Desi’s shadows are so big and while Kidman and Bardem are distinctive in their own right, they’re not on the same level.
There were some distractions, too. For one thing, I kept wondering what the heck was going on with Kidman’s face. I don’t think she had Botox or anything, but she was obviously wearing cheek prosthetics and possibly some rubber bands because her eyes looked unnaturally wide and her face was very stiff the whole time.
(Actors, I beg you: If your subject’s eyes were bigger than yours, please don’t try to make your eyes bigger for your role. It looks painful. Thanks.)
Another thing is that the action doesn’t always play naturally–sometimes scenes start with long beats as if the movie is begging to be cut into clips for the Oscars. Lucy or Desi don’t come across as likeable for most of the movie, and neither does the rest of the cast. On one hand, it’s off-putting, but on the other, crabbiness is understandable during such a loaded week.
Oh, and about those two movie bombs. It’s not a surprise where things end up, and the movie resolves the first one in a big way, albeit heavily fictionalized. Everyone applauds, the press corps pouts, and all is right with the world. Then in the midst of Lucy and Desi’s quick private celebration backstage, Lucy confronts Ricky about his cheating on her. It’s as if Sorkin didn’t want anyone to be happy for too long. I went out of the film feeling a little deflated.
Other than that, Being the Ricardos seems to hit differently depending on how much firsthand experience the viewer has with Lucy and Desi. My son liked the movie a lot more than I did, but this is probably because I remember its subjects when they were still alive; in fact, I have a vivid memory of seeing a giant photo of Lucille Ball playing the saxophone in the Arts and Leisure section of The Argus (now the East Bay Times) after Ball died in 1989. I wasn’t quite thirteen at the time. My husband and I both watched reruns like everyone else in America and enjoyed them immensely. Plus Lucy’s face is merch gold–who hasn’t seen her on posters, coffee mugs, fridge magnets, pajamas, or anything else that can carry an image?
I think that’s why it’s tough to honestly enjoy a movie like Being the Ricardos–there’s no way to really approach it with fresh eyes. Still, Sorkin and everyone else did an admirable job at capturing these two legends, and they definitely deserve kudos for not following the usual biopic formula.
My review of The Matrix: Resurrections will be up tomorrow. Light spoilers only. Thanks for reading, all…
Being the Ricardos is free to stream on Amazon for Prime customers.
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