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Being the Ricardos Falls Victim to Aaron Sorkin’s Worst Instincts

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Being the Ricardos is Aaron Sorkin’s new film depicting one uniquely chaotic, and heavily fictionalized, week in the production of the show I Love Lucy. The film opens with actors pretending to play real people giving interviews about the experience of working on episodes of I Love Lucy in the 50s. The faux documentary structure creates an immediate distance from the emotional impact the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz relationship might have had on the audience. It also stands to hammer the audience with the idea that a movie about making an episode of I Love Lucy is very important. It’s an awkward framing device that essentially exists to allow the writer to put exclamation points on the themes of his screenplay before the viewer has even engaged with the themes at all.

It’s a strange irony that a creator – Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom) who has abandoned the strictures of television for the silver screen ends up writing movies that would work far better in the fast growing home of storytelling for adults: the miniseries. The structure is breathtakingly obvious:

  • Episode 1: Lucille’s origin story

  • Episode 2: Lucille meets Desi

  • Episode 3: Lucille’s failed starlet career

  • Episode 4: Radio and the birth of I Love Lucy

  • Episode 5: Lucy Is ‘spectin

  • Episode 6: Ms. Ball Goes to Washington

  • Episode 7: Desi Arnez: Trapped in the Background

  • Episode 8: The Later Years

I just won everyone involved a mantle full of Emmys. I kid, but only slightly. By trying to shoehorn all of these plots not just into one movie but into one five day shooting week, Sorkin has made a movie that must treat its subjects with nothing more than glancing interest.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

This type of “all in” biopic has died because it’s more satisfying to see the story expanded over the time and breadth a miniseries allows. I’d happily watch an hour or two about the challenge of telling a pregnancy story on television in the 1950s, but here we are left with a scant few grandstanding scenes of proclamations about how Lucille and Desi will get their way and… that’s it. The core drama here “will I Love Lucy be cancelled because of Lucille’s pregnancy or long past communist ties?” is especially devoid of tension. You do not need to know that the Lucy Has a Baby episode of the show was one of the highest rated events in television history to know that I Love Lucy was not unceremoniously blacklisted from CBS’s schedule after an early season 2 episode.

I’m the last to require strict historical accuracy but the logical leaps required to get on Sorkin’s storytelling level are jarring. I get it – Sorkin writes not as the world is but in the way he wishes it were: all good-hearted centrist liberal virtue espoused through the witty deployment of four letter words. But the way he chooses to frame the “threat” of Lucille’s outing as a communist feels less like an insightful commentary on the system and more like Clint Eastwood making yet another story about a white everyman unfairly maligned by authority figures. It appears his worldview has begun to crystallize in a place where “JFK Democrats” have now become victims in society. I need not spoil the specifics of the ending but it is so breathtakingly misguided in its ahistorical nature that it can only serve to undercut Lucille and Desi’s arcs.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

We are now three movies into Aaron Sorkin’s career as a director and, well, I hate it. Between Molly’s Game, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and now Being the Ricardos, it is becoming abundantly clear that Sorkin’s writing needs pushback to reach its highest highs. His best scripts – The Social Network, Moneyball, A Few Good Men, and The American President among them – all seem to benefit from the checks and balances put on the creative process by directors bringing Sorkin’s words to life and bringing their own flavor to the mix. The Social Network sees David Fincher’s borderline nihilism perfectly undercut Sorkin’s obsession with crafting aspirational great man narratives. The Social Network’s most writerly moment – the film’s last beat that see a bedraggled Mark Zuckerberg checking his ex’s Facebook profile – almost serves to undercut the whole otherwise masterful movie by “explaining” the monster. It was an explanation that failed to persuade in 2010 and has aged poorly. So, sure, Sorkin’s version of Lucille is a terror to all those around her during production but it’s really because she’s upset about her marriage and/or pregnancy and/or communist past. Complex characters again laid low by simple justifications for their actions. Without even bothering to take the time to lambast Sorkin’s bland visual composition and badly muddled tones, it is clear he needs strong collaborators to elevate his prose.

As always, Sorkin has an immensely talented cast to play his words. J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, Spider-Man: No Way Home) can do this sort of gruff mentor with a heart of gold shtick in his sleep and is suitably charming. Nina Arianda (NBC’s Hannibal, Richard Jewell) and Alia Shawkat (Fox and Netflix’s Arrested Development, The To Do List) come off as the film’s most fully human characters despite limited screen time. Without delving into the propriety of his casting (a Spaniard cast as a Cuban), a far longer and more complex topic, Javier Bardem (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men) is truly wonderful as Desi Arnaz. While Bardem never really looks quite right for the part, he seems to get at a certain emotional truth of the charming, ambitious, flawed straight man behind Lucille Ball’s public persona.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!, Rabbit Hole) is a very strange choice for Lucille Ball. Kidman tends to be at her best as severe, introspective, or recalcitrant characters. I think of her work in Destroyer – a flawed film elevated by Kidman’s electric lead performance – as the perfect encapsulation of her skill set: a cop falling to pieces as her obsession over a case from her past rips apart what little is left of her soul. It is devastating, enervating work. She is not the person I would go to for the rubber-faced expressiveness and blissfully funny physicality Lucille Ball brought to the screen, and that’s before kitting her out in bad facial prosthetics and the occasional application of ineffective CGI de-aging. I grant that much of this film is focused not on I Love Lucy but rather the torture that goes into its creation. Nevertheless, there’s zero joy in the creative process, just an emotionless “that’s a funny premise” comment from Ball when a good scene is suggested. Perhaps the brilliant lens on the creative process granted by Peter Jackson’s stupendous The Beatles: Get Back has tainted my views here, but it’s jarring how cynical and anemic Sorkin’s vision of the creation of I Love Lucy appears. Sorkin goes so far as to depict Ball imagining how proposed scenes will play out in future episodes. In his telling, the famed wine grape stomping bit feels less like the product of a comedic genius making people laugh and more like the output of the Netflix content algorithm in human form. Kidman adds no levity or verve to the scenes – there is nothing intrinsically or naturally funny about her Lucille Ball. She is an automaton of content merely pretending to be funny. Lucille Ball was funny. Perhaps behind closed doors and away from the public spotlight the real Lucille Ball was this cold, calculating and analytic about her brand of humor; nevertheless, I cannot help but think this character is less meant to capture Lucille Ball’s essential truth as a comedic genius, and more meant to wrangle with Sorkin’s own struggles as a writer.

Being the Ricardos is on Amazon Prime Video today, December 21.