Like a lot of us, Aaron Sorkin loves Lucy. (For the record, the writer-director seems pretty fond of Desi as well.) He digs the way that former model Lucille Ball took her knocks as a contract player at RKO and transitioned to radio, where her manner of goosing punchlines through physical comedy — listeners couldn’t see her, but hey, that’s how Jack Benny did it — attracted the attention of TV executives. Sorkin admires the manner in which Ball wooed Cuban musician Desi Arnaz, her co-star in the forgettable 1940 romp Too Many Girls, and how when it came time to star in her own CBS sitcom, she insisted that her real-life husband played her screen husband. Long live Desilu! And it’s obvious just how much he swoons over the fact that, when it came to the integrity of the show and her comic instincts and the belief that Lucy knew best in terms of getting laughs, Ball spoke her mind to hack directors, network heads, and corporate toadies. If there’s anything Sorkin loves more than the sound of his dialogue or himself, it’s when the righteous artist stands up to any number of big, bad Goliaths.
Being the Ricardos (in theaters this weekend and on Amazon Prime Dec. 21) is a lot of things, including but not limited to: a scenes-from-a-marriage melodrama (as one character puts it, “They were either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off” — cut to scene involving both); a portrait of an O.G. boss-lady who took no prisoners and even less shit; a peek at how the 1950s TV-show sausage got made; and a great excuse for current famous people to play beloved famous people of the past.
But make no mistake, it is first and foremost an Aaron Sorkin Production™, with all of the pitfalls and pleasures and table-pounding that implies. Set during a single episode’s production in I Love Lucy‘s first season in 1952, but mashing up several years’ worth of scandals and interpersonal spats, this tribute to TV-couple royalty continually threatens to devolve into one man’s soapbox. Let us praise those who stood on the right side of history and then waited for everyone to catch up, the movie shouts — those who fought against the tides of tabloid media and the politically opportunistic and, because they were pure of heart and profane of mouth, were secure in the knowledge that they, and they alone, were correct. But enough about me, that Sorkinian voice behind the camera seems to say. Now let’s talk about the redhead and her bongo-playing partner.
Who, to be fair, are brought back to life by two extremely talented and nimble performers, and in a way in which the “karaoke after midnight” aspect of so much biopic acting is balanced out by a surprising amount of nuance. When the trailer for this movie first hit the internet, the masses clutched pearls and bemoaned the casting of Nicole Kidman as Lucy, saying that everyone’s favorite willowy Australian star was the wrong choice to play the comedy legend. It’s safe to say that Sorkin’s faith mostly paid off in this respect: While you may not get the sheer verve of her slapstick when the movie recreates actual black-and-white I Love Lucy scenes — there will be grape-stomping — you do get a vivid sense of the comedian’s steely backbone and shot-calling, Type A personality behind the scenes. The onstage Ball, the chess master of comic timing with the rubbery face and the first-rate whine, shows up in micro-spurts. The savvy business woman and brassy dame who had to bellow to be heard, however? She’s here in spades, and Kidman keeps her Ball rolling. As for Bardem, he’s positively buoyant, mambo-ing and sashaying through the frame when not parrying with his wife over reports of infidelities. He hasn’t seemed this loose or off-the-cuff since his camp turn as a Bond villain in 2012’s Skyfall.
But while both of these Oscar winners work triple-time to flesh out this couple as human beings and add sparks to the Desilu Blues Explosion that this movie uses as engine fuel, they still have to contend with a script and competing storylines that keep reducing them to Sorkin types. Ball is not just a one-woman rebuke to the patriarchy, she’s a First Amendment martyr — Lucy of Arc, both sword and hair flaming — and a boss trying desperately to square a work-life balance one gag at a time. Desi is not just a world-class musical ambassador whose eyes pop out like a Tex Avery wolf when he spies Lucy lounging in his shirt (and little else), he’s also an immigrant fighting against a hostile culture and someone standing up for anticommunist sentiments even as his wife gets pilloried for past “red” affiliations in public. Yes, these real-life celebrities contained multitudes, but Being the Ricardos forces them to add “filmmaker’s mouthpiece” to their resumes as well. You may start to feel like you are watching living, breathing talking points instead of people.
This notion extends to a lesser degree to the supporting cast as well, and while both Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons make for a snazzy double act as Vivian Vance and William Frawley, a.k.a. Ethel and Fred, they also get slotted into Woman Fighting Constricting Social Parameters But Also Her Own Envy and Cantankerous But Secretly Kind Mentor. Cast as the Young Writers-Room Wiseacre Figuring It All Out is Alia Shawkat (an older version of the character is played by Linda Lavin in the Reds-style testimonials that interrupt the action every so often), while Tony Hale draws the short straw and plays Boss Who Tears His Hair Out Yet Stands By His Star When It Counts. All of them get the chance to show their moxie via Sorkin’s patented rat-a-tat, screwball dialogue, and several of them get a righteous speech or two. You may have heard about a last-minute reprieve regarding Lucy’s communist associations that comes from a controversial historical figure — if not, we won’t spoil the “surprise.” We will say that it’s quite a choice to reframe this person as a defender of free speech, and the imprint of our palm is still visible on our face.
In the end, you realize that Being the Ricardos isn’t really about those fictional TV-show characters, or the pioneers who played them, or the folks who wrote them. It isn’t really even about the conflicts (Red scares, adultery, ego trips, the right to say “pregnancy” on prime-time television) that dot Lucy and Desi’s path to a bittersweet-ever-after ending. It is about using art to rattle a saber — only Lucy and Desi are the sabers, not the rattlers. As with his Trial of the Chicago 7 film, Sorkin seems to view history as the fodder for working with A-list stars and scoring ideological zingers. Mission accomplished, we guess. At a certain point, however, you really wish the film would stop ‘splaining its creator’s viewpoints and start actually being about its subjects.