‘Being the Ricardos’ captures a ‘scary’ week in this gripping, insightful Lucille and Desi biopic

“Being the Ricardos” (2021) – “That was a scary week.  It was a very scary week.” – staff writer Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox)

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz produced and starred in their megahit “I Love Lucy” (1951 – 1957) during the (first) Golden Age of Television.  It’s one of the all-time great sitcoms, as Lucy (Ball) usually knotted herself into harmless schemes over scores and scores of 23 to 26-minute episodes.  Lucy had to eventually and embarrassingly untangle her binds, and many times, in front of her husband Ricky (Arnaz). 

Hey, what’s your favorite “I Love Lucy” memory? 

The chocolate factory’s conveyor belt catastrophe – in S2E1’s “Job Switching” – might be this critic’s.  Then again, who could forget Lucy pitching Vitameatavegamin, but then stumbling over her words because the potion contains a sizeable percentage of alcohol in S1E30’s “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”. 

Yes, Lucille, Desi, William Frawley as Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz triggered raucous laughter and warm memories in millions and millions of households through the show’s initial run and for future generations in reruns. 

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” is a biopic about Lucille Ball, but not a traditional one.  A vast majority of the film’s 125 minutes transpires over one week, planning for an “I Love Lucy” episode, S2E4’s “Ethel and Fred Fight”. 

Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem)

(For the record, this is an actual episode, but – in reality – in the show’s premiere season (S1E22).)

“I’m from the Midwest.  I’ve lived through The Depression, The Dust Bowl.  I don’t scare that easy, but yea, it was a scary goddamn week.”  – staff writer Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin)

Although we absorb snippets of Ball (Nicole Kidman), Arnaz (Javier Bardem), Frawley (J.K. Simmons), and Vance (Nina Arianda) playing their small-screen alter egos during takes and rewrites of this particular TV experience, the recreated show clips in this movie are few and far between.

With terrific comedic actors like Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and J.K. Simmons jousting at times, “Being the Ricardos” has some whip-smart witty moments.  Still, this movie is not a comedy, nor a two-hour construction of “Ethel and Fred Fight”.  It’s partially the latter, but Sorkin’s film is a twisty, layered drama with multiple storylines that fly towards the audience with the speed of a dozen car salespeople gushing their pitches and vying for our attention in rapid succession on the last day to make their monthly quotas. 

This review will not reveal the most prominent dilemma, but it is severe enough to sully Lucille’s reputation and cancel “I Love Lucy” in just its second season.  Other tricky issues present themselves, including Lucille and Desi’s sometimes-combustible marriage, Frawley and Vance’s snide warfare, oodles of individual conflicts between the stars, writers, head producer, director, and chief sponsor, and lastly, a fundamental disagreement about the “Ethel and Fred Fight” episode itself.

Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda)

Anyone looking for a light, whimsical history of “I Love Lucy” or Kidman and company delivering uproarious recreations of the beloved program for two hours will be disappointed.

Instead, this film is an insider’s look at the intricate, thorny making of a big-time television show with competing personalities and – seemingly – hundreds of moving parts, like table reads, camera positioning, and sponsor meetings.  With Sorkin’s illustrious television and film history, he is exactly the right person to pen such a script.

Obviously, Sorkin and Kidman compound the spectacle by plunging into deep icon waters.  Lucille Ball is as renowned as John Wayne, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, or Jack Benny.  Notice that the aforementioned comparisons are men.  That’s by design because Ball was a pioneer as a female comedienne and resilient businesswoman.

No question, this is a risky but also fruitful cinematic exploration, and during a Dec. 6 “Being the Ricardos” virtual press conference, Kidman voiced her apprehension about playing Ball (pardon the pun).

Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman)

“Initially, when I said, ‘Yes’, I did not realize what I was saying ‘yes’ too,” Kidman says and adds, “Maybe, a week later, it hit me.  I was trying to work on baby steps into her voice, and it was nowhere within reach.  I (thought), ‘Oh no.  What have I done?’” 

She then discusses discovering both Lucy’s and Lucille’s voices, literally and metaphorically.   

Kidman says, “I was able to work on the actual Lucy part of it.  I could hang my hat on that.  I’d (think), ‘I’m going to have the hair.  I’m going to have the lips, and I’m going to have all of that.’  Even though (playing Lucy on the show) is a sliver of the movie, I’ll have that.  Then, out of Lucy Ricardo came Lucille Ball.  Lucille Ball is very different (than) Lucy Ricardo.  Lucille Ball created Lucy Ricardo.”

Kidman portrays a formidable, demanding, and perceptive presence who calls most of the shots regarding the show.  Lucille is a mesmerizing, intimidating force, but she wholly partners with – rather than bullies – Desi.  In almost all cases, Lucille and Desi are professionally aligned, but they are sometimes personally fractured. 

Kidman meets this daunting challenge and commands the screen, and her Lucy Ricardo moments offer pretty darn close to dead-on remembrances of our treasured red-headed character. 

Personally, my repeated reactions – during those precious minutes – were, “Wow!  She got it!”

Bardem compliments Kidman just fine as Arnaz.  He doesn’t resemble or sound like the real-life actor/producer, but Bardem is quite believable as Desi, especially when Arnaz influences and navigates his and Lucille’s livelihood and image.  

William Frawley (J.K. Simmons)

Two of the most compelling images outside the leads are Simmons and Arianda as Frawley, Vance, and Fred and Ethel Mertz.  Simmons dons frumpy prosthetics and a frank, sarcastic guise that brings William/Fred to life in every frame.  Meanwhile, Arianda offers an authentic picture of a woman worthy of much more than a second fiddle, but Vivian is resigned to playing supporting, plain notes for the good of the show. 

It’s all about the show, and yes, it was a scary week…and an utterly gripping and insightful time at the movies. 

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written and directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, and Nina Arianda

Rated: R

Runtime: 125 minutes

Image credits: Amazon Studios and Amazon Prime Video

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