By Ben Hiett
Amazon’s most recent attempt at striking Oscar gold, “Being the Ricardos” bears all the trademarks of its director, for better and for worse. Plagued by its own excess, the film proves that an overabundance of talents is not always reflected in the final product.
I’m not saying that this film is not a well-put-together product; too many seasoned professionals are involved here for such an outcome. In fact, the performances, the writing, the direction and the overall storytelling are all generally good, occasionally excellent. Yet those occasional flashes of excellence only left me longing for the movie that could have been had some of the writing been subtler, the characterization more consistent and the directorial focus tighter.
Most of the film’s weaknesses flow out of the strengths of its director, famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin known for his fast-paced, hard-hitting dialogue. His screenplays have bolstered some of this last decade’s critical darlings, such as “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs.” Sorkin is a master at tapping into the chaotic nature of human conversation in a way that makes even the most trivial interactions feel cinematically compelling.
As such, Sorkin works best when his characters are as rough-around-the-edges as his dialogue is. In some ways, then, he’s the perfect choice to write and direct a biopic about brilliant comedic partners and troubled spouses Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Playing the goofily dysfunctional but lovably endearing Ricardos in their classic sitcom “I Love Lucy,” Lucille and Desi’s real-life marriage had its share of real-life dysfunction.
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem effectively capture the messy reality of Lucy and Desi’s real-life marriage.
Yet Sorkin does an excellent job of showing why, despite their issues, Desi and Lucy would stay together; they have a mutual respect and admiration for each other that sustains their romance through the constant conflict in their schedules, the frequent clash of their strong-willed personalities and Desi’s frequent absences and possible infidelity.
This complicated dynamic is effectively captured in Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem’s performances as Lucille and Desi. Kidman especially embodies Ball’s no-holds-barred sense of comedy, intentionally wacky physicality and shrewd grasp of showbiz politics. The same can generally be said of Bardem, though the accuracy of his performance to the real-life Desi is somewhat limited by his deeper vocal register and more imposing physicality.
Where this film trips over itself is not the acting but the characterization. Lucille Ball was undeniably a comedic genius, able to come up with and expertly execute the goofiest punchlines or physical pratfalls. She was also a woman operating in a male-dominated work environment and most certainly had to be shrewd and strategic to make it in the business.
Nevertheless, the defining feature of Ball’s sense of humor was her ability to make fun of herself for the sake of a joke. Lucy Ricardo was a lovable klutz who, though well-meaning, somehow found herself in the most ridiculous situations. From the hours of “I Love Lucy” I watched growing up, I always got the sense that, on the inside, Ball was laughing right alongside the audience at the ridiculous hijinks her character got up to.
Out of a misplaced sense of veneration, Sorkin inadvertently presents Ball as having a fragile ego and an inflated sense of self-importance. For instance, Kidman’s Lucille is deeply offended when the only female writer for the show suggests that Lucy’s character is often portrayed as too ditzy. Kidman’s Lucille seems deeply insulted, not at the idea that Lucy’s character should be fundamentally changed but at the mere suggestion that Lucy is at all ditzy in the first place. Her overly-sensitive response seems disrespectful to the real-life Lucille whose comedy was defined by her self-deprecating humor and willingness to look ridiculous to sell a joke.
The film fundamentally misunderstand what made “I Love Lucy” and its titular character so iconic and beloved.
Beyond that, the film treats moments where Ball is coming up with some of the show’s most iconic moments with an overblown sense of reverence. The cerebral music, intense close-ups and Ball’s imaginary soundstage akin to Sherlock’s mind-palace add up to disingenuous melodrama rather than the impactful storytelling Sorkin is aiming for. Such intense framing fit well in “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs” because it matched those characters’ egotistical self-images. Here, it only serves to distance Kidman’s otherwise excellent portrayal from the truly great comedian that Ball was.
Such self-importance also goes against the entire purpose of sitcoms in the first place. Shows like “I Love Lucy” have always served as an escape; they created T.V. worlds slightly removed from our own where characters could overdose on Vitameatavegamin, wreck a chocolate factory’s productivity or destroy an oven with an oversized loaf of bread and still end the day with a laugh and a smile. No matter what happened, by the end of the episode, things were always back to normal. That inconsequential nature of the proceedings is part of what made classic sitcoms beloved by audiences; they provided a 20-minute escape from the seriousness of life.
Sorkin, ever the fan of cinematic drama, doesn’t seem to understand that, resulting in a well-acted, well-produced film that fundamentally misunderstands its main character and her essential qualities. For as much as this film gets right, it gets some of the most essential elements of its real-life subject wrong, and that keeps me from being able to call it great.
“Being the Ricardos” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Ben Hiett is an Advanced Biblical & Ministry Studies graduate student and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.