There are two ways to go about casting an actor in the role of a real-life person. You can either get someone who resembles them and hope they can pull it off or get a good actor and let the make-up department earn their money. Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos takes the latter route, which is a brave choice. The film’s protagonists, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, are American TV icons and imprinted in the country’s cultural memory. Nicole Kidman’s casting as the beloved Lucille Ball was not without its share of controversy. But it’s a gamble that seems to have paid off, partially at least. The two leads have done a good job, as has much of the support cast. Where the movie falters, however, is its pacing and narrative.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were the first couple of American comedy in the 50s. Their show I Love Lucy, which introduced the modern sitcom style to the world, was super-hit for six years. The film deals with one particular week in the lives of the power couple when their world – both personal and professional – was turned upside down. It shows how Desi and Lucy work together to salvage their marriage, careers, and possibly their lives. The film takes creative liberties and changes the timeline of several events. For one, the issues mentioned in the couple’s lives in the film took place years apart, not in a week, but all that is pardonable. The drama, urgency and the countdown style of the film’s narrative raise the stakes.
Something that makes Being the Ricardos a better watch for the Indian audience, perhaps, is that I Love Lucy isn’t as big a phenomenon here as it is in the US. Those who haven’t watched reruns of Lucy and Desi can readily accept Nicole and Javier’s portrayals of the couple. It is helped by the fact that Nicole’s make-up is spot on and her transformation into Lucille Ball is effortless with the distinct voice and accent. Javier Bardem, too, is a nice fit to personify the charm and wit of Desi Arnaz. His Colombian accent can be a bit too much at times, but it never appears to be a mockery.
The two leads are the film’s beating heart, and they carry the story forward on their own. This film needed Desi and Lucy to have rock-solid chemistry and Nicole and Javier bring just that. Watching two actors of that calibre own the screen is an experience. The scenes where Nicole Kidman performs the kind of physical comedy Lucille Ball was famous for are a treat to watch. Disclaimer: don’t compare Nicole to Lucy and enjoy one artiste paying homage to another. The black and white recreations of I Love Lucy scenes are the highlights of the film.
The performances of the supporting cast, which is quite a stellar one, are like the icing on the cake. JK Simmons and Nina Arianda stand out as veteran TV actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance. They are the eyes through which the audience sees the real versions of Lucy and Desi, not the ones our protagonists have carefully crafted for the world. Alia Shawkat, Clark Gregg and Tony Hale also do justice to their roles.
The film focuses on the lead pair’s tumultuous relationship but it does get exhausting after a while. One gets tires of the fights after fights and the several disagreements and after a while. As Aaron Sorkin tries to bring the highly physical TV acting style of the 50s into his storytelling, subtlety goes out the window, which makes watching the film somewhat of a taxing task. Every character is edgier, every dialogue is louder, every twist is heightened, and every situation seems much more grave than it should be.
My biggest complaint with Being the Ricardos is that everyone talks like Aaron Sorkin. You can be forgiven for thinking you have just started watching an extended period piece version of The Social Network. Sorkin’s dry humour and writing is always enjoyable but not when it reduces multiple characters into extensions of the man himself, with very few discerning and distinctive qualities.
Being the Ricardos is a big what-if. What if Aaron Sorkin hadn’t allowed himself to get carried away and made a more even film on the worst week in the lives of Lucy and Desi? He had the cast, the setting and a good premise – everything to hold it all together and make it a memorable film. But in the end, we get an uneven but well-acted movie that promises a lot, somewhat entertains but still leaves you wondering about what was missing. Being The Ricardos is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Movie: Being the Ricardos
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg