Photo: Glen Wilson/Amazon Studios
The world of television — its ins and outs, production logistics, and clashes of personalities — has proven fertile soil for Aaron Sorkin’s writing. His 1998 breakthrough series Sports Night brought screwball snap and occasional pathos to the character-driven workplace sitcom, a formula he continued and expanded on his signature show, The West Wing. His Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention approached the medium’s history with vigor and a fair amount of venom a decade later. But the idiot box has also inspired arguably his worst projects, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, sanctimonious and stupefyingly self-serious accounts of the woes of content creation. His new film Being the Ricardos, an account of the backstage drama at television’s first great situation comedy, I Love Lucy, might have gone either way.
But with Sorkin the writer also serving as director, Being the Ricardos was doomed from the start. There are moments when the movie pops and the filmmaker seems in sync with his cast, his cast seems in sync with one another, and the intended sparks fly. But they’re fleeting. Sorkin stalls the film’s urgency with endless flashbacks and flash-forwards, with characters frequently restating (and overstating) ideas and emotions we’ve just seen dramatized. And when he comes up emotionally short, he resorts to a hoary, obvious score (by the usually dependable Daniel Pemberton). The whole thing is strangely lifeless as a result, a museum piece, a carefully curated display of old-timey television with nothing much at stake.
Being the Ricardos takes as its hook a short-lived scandal: In 1952, star Lucille Ball was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for nebulous ties to the Communist Party in her youth, a bit of gossip leaked by the notorious columnist Walter Winchell. This upended Ball’s life for a week in the midst of I Love Lucy’s domination, threatening to bring the show, as well as the careers of its stars, Ball (Nicole Kidman) and husband, business partner, and co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), to a hasty conclusion. “It was a scary time,” explain the actors playing the show’s writers Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy), and Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), whose recollections illuminate that stressful week. It’s the kind of dual (warring, perhaps) storytelling device that Sorkin loves, a chance to spin several plates at once.
The trouble is he isn’t a graceful enough director to execute such narrative acrobatics. Much of the couple’s backstory — Ball’s frustrated attempts at movie stardom, the fiery attraction between her and Arnaz, the logistics of careers that initially kept them apart — is dramatized capably, firmly rooted in old Hollywood history while invested in the complex politics of navigating show business as a headstrong woman. But Sorkin stuffs in complications that occurred elsewhere in the I Love Lucy timeline, including gossip rags running stories of Desi’s infidelity and the battle to work Lucy’s pregnancy into the show, turning the movie’s scope into what she calls “a compound fracture of a week.” The story could have succinctly captured Lucy and Desi’s lives and relationship via the earth-shattering events of this confined period, but the copious cuts forward and backward in time keep undermining that potential. Being the Ricardos turns into a filmed Wikipedia page, too flighty and shallow to give us any real emotional insight or to add to I Love Lucy’s well-known lore.
It can be dry as a Wikipedia page, too. This is a film about one of the funniest people of the 20th century. Yet presented with Ball’s unique flair for pratfalls and punch lines, Sorkin dwells instead on a laser-focused Kidman thinking her bits of business through. It reminds us that the writer is rarely more insufferable than when he’s on his Studio 60–style soapbox about the Very Serious Business of Television Comedy.
That said, the longtime television pro knows what bickering over business at the table read and power plays in rehearsals look and sound like, and he nails the rivalries and running jokes that become part of the work environment. Of particular note is the subplot concerning Nina Arianda’s Vivian Vance, who considered herself more of a pretty ingenue than a frumpy sidekick. Arianda and Kidman flesh out the prickly dynamic between Vance and Ball and Vance’s ongoing distaste with her place on the show. It’s a fascinating footnote, sympathetically portrayed.
The sturdy cast of supporting players and character actors get their arms around Sorkin’s stylized dialogue with ease. His customary rat-tat-tat rhythms don’t feel too contemporary here, indebted as they are to the screwball comedies of an earlier era. J.K. Simmons proves the picture’s MVP, envisioning his William Frawley as a mixture of merciless insult comic and seen-it-all showbiz cynic. Clark Gregg (as CBS exec Howard Wenke), Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, and Tony Hale all make the most of their limited screen time.
The central performers have more trouble. Both Kidman and Bardem are a good decade too old for their roles. Hair aside, Kidman just doesn’t look much like Ball (and the attempts to make her look like Lucy with the help of prosthetics just underscore that point), and she can’t do slapstick. It can be downright eerie to watch as Kidman, stone-faced, attempts classic sequences like the beloved stomping of the grapes and falls flat. She just slogs through it, seemingly embarrassed by the endeavor.
Still, Kidman delivers in the dramatic scenes and gets a couple of those big blow-the-doors-off speeches that Sorkin writes especially well. Ultimately, the writing is about all Sorkin does well, though he whiffs with a borderline pro-HUAC — and definitely pro-Hoover (good timing!) — ending, jettisoning the actual (and compelling) conclusion of real-life events and subbing in a fictional one that amps up the melodrama. (He similarly did this with The Trial of the Chicago 7.)
It’s not that absolute fidelity to history is a necessity (The Social Network certainly takes some liberties); it’s that ignoring that history to create something this intellectually and emotionally phony — this dramatically false — serves neither the film nor its subjects. It’s the kind of miscalculation you can’t help but wonder if another director — a stronger one, like The Social Network’s David Fincher or Steve Jobs’ Danny Boyle — would have vetted and vetoed. Three films into his directorial career, one thing is abundantly clear: Someone needs to help Aaron Sorkin, who cannot, it seems, help himself.