At first glance, Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem would not have been my first choices to play the iconic TV couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. However they will win you over with their loving, spirited portrayals in "Being the Ricardos," a captivating and funny glimpse into the lives of this mega-famous pair.
Airing from 1951 to 1957, it's hard to put into the proper context just how influential and beloved the sitcom "I Love Lucy" was. It was the first television program to be shot on 35mm film in front of a live studio audience. It defined an entire generation and pushed the envelope as to what was possible on TV. It was the #1 show on TV four of the six years it was on the air, never falling out of the top three and pulling in upwards of 15 million households per episodes. At its center was comedian and budding dramatic actress Lucille Ball and her fun-loving Cuban rock-star (before there was even such a thing) husband, Desi Arnaz.
"Being the Ricardos" is not a "cradle-to-grave" biopic. It instead focuses on one tumultuous week in the couple's lives, when tabloid news reported that Lucy might be a communist. On set, Lucy and Desi push for her real-life pregnancy to become a part of the show's storyline (a big no-no at the time...heck, the married Lucy and Ricky on the show even had separate beds!), and off the set, Lucy worries if Desi has been faithful. We learn that fun-loving TV pals Fred & Ethel (originally played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance, here portrayed gloriously by J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda), actually hate each other in real life, adding to the drama surrounding Lucy and Desi's lives.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue is sharp and witty and comes fast and furious, as we've come to expect. There are other players, like "I Love Lucy" writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), as well as the show's producer, Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), who try to contain the swirling powers of Desi and Lucy as they face one of the worst weeks of their lives. Did all of this really happen in the span of one week, or were multiple real-life developments jammed into this short time span for maximum dramatic effect? It doesn't really matter, as Sorkin straps us in and sets his roller coaster in motion.
Kidman's Lucy looks more like the real Lucy than I would have imagined, and Javier Bardem has a different look and body type than Desi Arnaz. But within minutes of them sharing the screen, we fully accept them as our beloved Lucy and Ricky.
Bardem in particular is tremendous and fully captures the spirit of the happy-go-lucky Cuban performer. Lucy is shown to be a strong, ambitious woman, perhaps way ahead of her time in Hollywood, fighting a system that isn't quite ready for her yet. So much of the Lucy that we get is not the Lucy that we know from the show: Goofy, a bit bufoonish and endlessly hilarious. When those on-screen moments are portrayed though, Kidman is pitch-perfect with her voice and physicality...you'd think that the real Lucille Ball was inhabiting her body.
Sorkin does make some curious narrative choices, like framing the entire film like it was taking place in a documentary, with older versions of some of the players sharing their stories on-camera. The movie also jumps around quite a lot, in jarring ways, to the point that you wish some of this was smoothed out.
The performances from top-to-bottom are the real draw...this is quite the ensemble with Tony Hale, J.K. Simmons, Kidman and Bardem leading the way.
"Being the Ricardos" has a lot going on, and doesn't leave us time to really appreciate the brilliance of its subjects, but the love and respect it shows for both Lucy and Desi is quite palpable. Sorkin doesn't allow any dull moments, and for anyone that still carries in their hearts any love at all for Lucy will find themselves smitten with nostalgia. There are definitely worse people to spend two hours with, and perhaps nobody better.
Genre: Biography, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Jake Lacy).
Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin ("The Trial of the Chicago 7," "Molly's Game").
"Being the Ricardos" is in theaters on Friday, December 10th, 2021.
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