Dir: Aaron Sorkin. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg. 15, 131 minutes.
The crescent-shaped curves of Lucille Ball’s eyebrows, the gentle dip of her cupid’s bow – these are features burned into the American consciousness. There the actor would be, most Monday nights throughout the Fifties, looking bright and beaming on people’s television screens. Her number one sitcom, I Love Lucy, made her and Desi Arnaz – her on and offscreen husband – TV’s first millionaires. So, it’s quite the gamble for writer-director Aaron Sorkin to make a biopic about the pair that seems largely uninterested in any direct imitation. You won’t really find Lucille Ball in this film. You are always, and inescapably, watching Nicole Kidman approximate her, Ball’s thin, pen mark eyebrows traced over her own.
Resemblance, or lack thereof, has swallowed up all pre-release discussion of Being the Ricardos – particularly since Arnaz was Cuban, and the man hired to play him, Javier Bardem, is neither of Cuban nor Latin American descent. Those particular concerns aside, there does seem to be some strange, internal logic at work here. Sorkin’s film doesn’t really function as a biopic. It is, primarily, a drama about the inner mechanics of comedy writing. This could really have been about any sitcom, or any two stars – the point (and it’s a good point, too) being that nobody really laughs when writing jokes. Puns and pratfalls are, in reality, just the material result of hours of ideological battles, where each line of dialogue is treated as disputed territory.
The film condenses three significant chapters in Ball and Arnaz’s lives into a single week in September 1952. Primarily, we’re watching the news leak that Ball was under investigation for being a communist, despite having already been cleared by the House Un-American Activities Commission. Then throw into the mix rumours of Arnaz’s infidelity and the news of Ball’s second pregnancy, which was eventually written into the show itself (after a lot of fuss from the network).
With Being the Ricardos, history essentially bends itself to fit within Sorkin’s comfort zone. There’s an easy pleasure to be found in the way he maps out all the confrontations, wounded egos, and hyperfixations at play. The film is always at its best when its cast of writers and execs – played by such comedic talent as Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy – are allowed to simply bat around insults and provocations.
To give Kidman and Bardem some credit, their performances haven’t been entirely deprived of mimicry. They’re able to capture certain mannerisms and vocal inflexions – Kidman goes lower to capture Ball’s husky tones, the mark of a lifetime of smoking. Bardem clearly practised Arnaz’s catchphrase of “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!” until he got it right. But that doesn’t erase Kidman’s natural, whispery tones or Bardem’s granite-carved features. They’re two distinctive, well-known performers being asked to play two other distinctive, well-known performers. That’s simply too much of a gap to bridge. It’s JK Simmons and Nina Arianda, playing I Love Lucy regulars William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who have the freedom to deliver lived-in performances.
Sorkin certainly doesn’t have all that much interest in deepening our understanding of who Ball and Arnaz were, beyond the rather obvious observation that these onscreen goofballs were serious, sexual people in real life. As someone comments early on, Ball and Arnaz were always either “tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off”. And despite Being the Ricardos dealing directly with Ball’s treatment by the HUAC – an outgrowth of McCarthyism that saw several Hollywood figures blacklisted – the film is stubbornly apolitical.
It is, at the very least, far more interested in words than ideas – perhaps the defining feature of Sorkin’s work. He carefully tiptoes around Ball’s political alliances, as well Arnaz’s own past (his family fled to Miami after the Cuban Revolution). It’s a complex situation reduced to a singular ruse, with the couple trying to convince audiences that Ball’s Communist Party registration was a silly mistake. It’s certainly bizarre how the film positions FBI director J Edgar Hoover, of all people, as the narrative’s ultimate hero. But would any of that really matter to Sorkin when he could write lines as slick as: “I’m Lucille Ball – when I’m being funny, you’ll know it”?