Who doesn’t love Lucy?
With apologies to SEINFELD (1989-1998), I LOVE LUCY (1951-1957) is arguably the greatest television comedy series in the history of American television. It was a staple for me as a kid growing up, and that was in reruns twenty years after if first aired. Lucille Ball’s zany personality on the show was infectious, and her knack for physical comedy hilarious.
Today’s movie, BEING THE RICARDOS (2021), written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is not really about the entertainment phenomenon which was I LOVE LUCY, but rather about a single dreadful week in the lives of its two stars, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), a week where Lucy was accused in the national press of being a Communist. And while parts of Lucy and Desi’s relationship, like how they first met, are shown in flashbacks, the film really remains hyper focused on this one very dramatic week.
And writer/director Sorkin plays fast and loose with the truth, creating a week like no other for the two stars that in reality really didn’t play out this way at all. So, you could say that it was loosely based on true events.
As such, while I certainly enjoyed BEING THE RICARDOS, I can’t say that I loved it.
As Lucy and Desi prepare to film the week’s episode, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” a radio broadcast by Walter Winchell announces that Lucille Ball is a Communist. Lucy admits to the CBS executives and sponsors that there is a shred of truth to the story, that twenty years earlier she had checked communist on a ballot in honor of her communist grandfather who raised her, but that was it, and she was never active in the party or had any interest in it other than that one checking of the box. While she is believed, everyone holds their collective breath because they know that if the national press picks up the story and sways public opinion, this could mean the end of the show and Lucy’s career.
Meanwhile, Lucy is also upset over another newspaper story, one that says Desi is cheating on her, which he of course denies. And if that wasn’t enough, Desi and Lucy announce that Lucy is pregnant, and they want Lucy’s pregnancy written into the show, which at the time was controversial for American television. The movie takes place over the course of this one exceedingly stressful week, and focuses on how it affects both its stars, as well as co-stars Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and the series’ writers and producer. Eventually the communist story is picked up by the national newspapers, and Lucy and Desi need to come up with a strategy to deal with it, which Desi ultimately does.
As I said, this one is loosely based on a true story. While most of the events in this movie did happen, they didn’t all happen in the same week, and references to specific episodes in the series are all over the place, meaning some are mentioned that wouldn’t have even been filmed yet during the week chronicled in this movie.
I found this to be somewhat of a distraction.
I also found Nicole Kidman’s performance as Lucy somewhat of a distraction as well. Kidman is a terrific actress, and her performance is generally receiving high praise, and I somewhat agree. However, there was something about the make-up which just didn’t capture Lucille Ball to me. And as much as I enjoyed Kidman’s performance at times, most of the time I just didn’t feel like I was watching Lucille Ball. She seemed artificial.
Javier Bardem, on the other hand, fared very well as Desi Arnaz. I think he was helped here by the fact that Sorkin didn’t go out of his way to try to make Bardem look exactly like Desi Arnaz, which is what they tried to do with Kidman and Lucille Ball. As such, Bardem is free to play the role unencumbered by make-up restrictions. His performance is more natural and as a result comes off as more realistic.
I also really enjoyed J.K. Simmons as William Frawley and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance. Simmons is always good no matter what role he plays, and Arianda made for a convincing Vivian Vance. And while Arianda has been good in such films as RICHARD JEWELL (2019) and STAN & OLLIE (2018), she’s more memorable here as Vance.
One of the themes that runs through this movie is Lucy’s love for “home.” Not a house, but the feeling of having a place to return to at the end of the day, surrounded by loved ones, and it’s something she feels she is losing during this week. Her professional “home” is threatened since her fans may abandon her, and her personal home is also in jeopardy, as she feels Desi is cheating on her.
As such, the week as depicted here in BEING THE RICARDOS is one of the worst weeks is Lucille Ball’s life. In short, she’s not at her best. In fact, she’s pretty awful, meaning that she does not come off as that likeable a character. It’s an odd choice for a story about Lucille Ball.
It also doesn’t come off as overly authentic. The week is so full of conflict and drama it doesn’t seem real. Turns out, it wasn’t. This week from hell was put together by Aaron Sorkin for dramatic purposes, and while I usually don’t mind creative license, this time it didn’t work all that well for me.
It just wasn’t handled all that smoothly. For example, Desi Arnaz’ solution to Lucy’s communist problem was to place a live phone call to J. Edgar Hoover in front of the live studio I LOVE LUCY audience where the FBI director could declare loudly that Lucy was cleared of any communist connection. Did this really happen? If you know anything about J. Edgar Hoover, in spite of the fact that he was a reportedly a fan of the show, this sort of thing just seems so out of character for a man who kept files on so many people, including Lucille Ball.
BEING THE RICARDOS should have an asterisk after its title, with the explanation that this story is being the Ricardos during the worst week of their lives.
Followed by a double asterisk.
Which says: Only, it’s a week that didn’t really happen, at least not the way it is depicted in this movie.
So, while I love Lucy, I can’t say that I love BEING THE RICARDOS, mostly because after this movie, I’m not sure I really know what it’s like being the Ricardos.