It’s been a heck of a week on the “I Love Lucy” show. The writers are struggling to come up with fresh ideas, hounded by the show’s two stars to make sure they’re grounded in realism and logic, while the crew is disgruntled and on the verge of burnout. There have been arguments with the producers at CBS who are balking at the idea of Lucille Ball appearing on the nation’s No. 1 show while pregnant, with her husband, Desi Arnez, insisting this will be the case. And there’s a rumor floating about that a story claiming Lucy is a communist is set to break at any time.
All of this would be more than enough material for a compelling story, and for the most part, Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” is an engaging film. Though it is anchored by fascinating performances from Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in the leads, the movie has a pacing problem that proves frustrating, nearly undoing the fine work of all involved.
Anecdotes from writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh (Ronny Cox and Linda Lavin) as well as producer Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubenstein) about their experiences working on “I Love Lucy” serve as a framing device for the film, their memories providing a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the show. These three perspectives form a comprehensive view of this tumultuous week in 1952, with the show already a sensation after just one season, but not without a great deal of difficulty for all involved.
In addition to the strain of running the show, Lucy also suspects that Desi has been unfaithful, an accusation he denies, though the tabloids and his wife’s intuition tell a different tale. As if tension from one of the on-set couples wasn’t enough, William Frawley and Vivian Vance (J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda) are constantly at each other’s throats, so much so that you come to realize what good actors these two were, to be able to portray any sense of affection between their characters on screen.
Lucy is presented as a perfectionist, a taskmaster who insists that each bit be perfect, her strength coming from years of being subjected to short-sighted producers who never saw her potential. She won’t be pushed around, and the inherent strength as well as glamor that Kidman brings to the screen makes her a perfect choice to bring the icon to life. And while Bardem doesn’t look like Arnez, he captures the performer’s charisma and energy, particularly in a recreation of one of his nightclub sessions, banging maniacally on the conga drum, women swooning in their seats.
Unfortunately, Sorkin employs a series of flashbacks devoted to how the couple met, their courtship and partnership, both personally and professionally. As well acted as these are, they aren’t nearly as compelling as those about the trials of producing the show. As a result, the film loses its momentum.
Still and all, there’s enough here to recommend the film. In the end, we come away with a greater appreciation for what these two television icons accomplished, that the combined strength of Arnez’s vision and Ball’s tenacity were what shaped their legacy, though their personal troubles would threaten to undo their on-screen work.
As such, it seems fitting that “Being the Ricardos” is a film at odds with itself. It’s a bit of irony I think its subjects would appreciate.