Few TV stars, past or present, could breathe the same rarified air as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. As a power couple, they dominated the Nielsen ratings throughout the 50s, often commanding an audience of over 60 million. At the same time, Aaron Sorkin’s wonderful Being the Ricardos also shows the great and terrible burden that comes with being an icon: While their pop culture cachet may have been immense, it was also surprisingly fragile. After all, he was Cuban and she was a woman. And that’s to say nothing of their tumultuous marriage, which was perpetually primed to detonate with the fury of a hydrogen bomb. With his trademark blend of humor and panache, Sorkin offers a fascinating glimpse into just how difficult it was to be a Ricardo.
Although Sorkin hops around in time, he uses one week of peak I Love Lucy as the hub for his story. During the pre-production and filming of this particular episode, Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) suddenly find their personal and professional lives in peril: She suspects him of philandering, while he has gotten wind that she’s about to be investigated as a Communist. To make matters worse, Lucy announces they are expecting a baby. At this point in TV history, sitcom couples were antiseptic, asexual beings who slept in separate twin beds and used the gentlest, G-rated euphemisms. A visible baby bump would serve as an awkward confirmation that Lucy and Ricky have gotten freak-nasty, and the sponsors and network executives simply won’t have that.
Meanwhile, Lucy must grapple with the usual backstage drama: Co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) openly despise each other. Lead writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy) are delivering jokes that don’t land. Executive Producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) feels marginalized by the powerful Ricardos. On top of all that, Lucy is always the savviest and most savage comic mind in the room, and yet she struggles to get her ideas implemented.
Sorkin slathers all this dramatic tension with a full coat of 50s sheen. Ricardos is a gorgeous period piece, and a valentine to the Golden Ages of movies and TV. Sorkin name-drops everybody from Henry Fonda to Red Skelton, and pop culture geeks will have a ball keeping up with all the references. Even better, classic I Love Lucy sets get recreated in meticulous detail, along with some of the most famous gags of the series.
For all its melodrama, Ricardos mostly manages to stay frothy and fun. This is thanks to Sorkin’s light touch. He infuses the story with his usual ping-pong badinage, and the top-notch cast obliges by firing these volleys with incredible precision. This dialogue also bears the stamp of Sorkin’s emotional imprint: Many moments in Ricardos are laced with a bittersweet irony that perfectly suits the vibe between Lucy and Ricky. With that said, Aaron Sorkin is a rare screenwriting auteur, and your appreciation of this film will largely depend on your tolerance for his trademark banter. It’s often brilliant, but many will complain that his dialogue feels too written. That might sound like a strange sentence, but Sorkin’s detractors can point to exactly what I’m talking about.
As the title couple, Kidman and Bardem are simply outstanding. Neither looks much like their real-life counterparts, but they do an incredible job of conveying the spirit of each: Kidman’s Lucy is irrepressible, insecure, and wry to her very core. She’s an expert at finding the funny, but there’s also a deep-seated sadness behind her talent and charisma. Bardem plays the Desi Arnaz of lore: He’s a big, boisterous soul, with enough genius and ego to instantly fill any room. Together, they’re loving, volatile, and completely vulnerable–soulmates who seem destined not to last.
The supporting players are equally strong. William Frawley was a notorious curmudgeon, but Simmons gives him a well-worn humanity, especially when it comes to Ball. Adriana plays Vance as a woman at a professional and spiritual crossroads: It can’t be easy to be the star, but sometimes life is even crueler to the woman below her on the bill. As Ethel Mertz, Vance can’t be too pretty, too thin, or too funny. Adriana brings a cheerful melancholy to an actress who would inevitably be defined by the woman standing next to her.
That salty sweetness actually describes the whole of Being the Ricardos: Lucy and Desi achieved unimaginable success, pioneered television as we know it, but also endured great emotional strain along the way. Throughout this remarkable film, Sorkin simultaneously shows us everything that made them great, and everything that made them undeniably human.
131 min. Amazon Prime. R.