There’s a good movie baked into Being the Ricardos’ 131 minutes. It’s about 90 minutes long, maybe a little less. The remaining 41 minutes comprise an Aaron Sorkin movie, and like too much cream in a beautifully fried donut, they weigh down the total package with needless fat: Talking heads, flashbacks and archival footage. Lucille Ball’s story of perseverance, both in an industry that saw her as livestock to be herded rather than a professional to respect, and in a marriage held together by hot temperaments, hot sex and a collective drive to succeed, is an all-timer. Quite literally, the world that Being the Ricardos exists in wouldn’t without Ball and I Love Lucy. She’s a legend. She’s a pioneer. She’s shockingly good at pantomiming ineptitude. She’s Lucy!
But Sorkin has never met a culture-altering figure he couldn’t interpret as one of his home-grown characters. There’s a reason Lucille Ball registers as Lucille at all, and that reason is Nicole Kidman, cast as the great comedienne, businesswoman and trailblazer in spite of the howls of protest on Twitter. It may be commonplace these days to accept impersonation for performance at the expense of acting—we’re in a place where Ridley Scott hired Jared Leto and a mob of makeup artists to portray Paolo Gucci instead of just hiring Paul Giamatti—but Sorkin would seem to have no such delusions. Kidman may not be a 100% match for Ball in appearance, but boy does she commune with her spirit.
Watching Kidman become Ball is dazzling. Being the Ricardos is set during one week in 1952, when the House Un-American Activities Committee accused her of being a communist, right as her popularity, and the sitcom I Love Lucy’s popularity, were at a high: More people tuned in for the show than for Eisenhower’s inauguration and the Queen’s coronation. Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), Ball’s husband, co-star and the titular “I” of the show, wasn’t the only person who loved Lucy. America loved Lucy. (Arnaz happened to love women who weren’t Lucy, too.)
During Being the Ricardos, Sorkin backflips around the preceding decades to map out where they started out in their careers, how they met, how they took off as a success story and a Hollywood “it” couple, and how they arrived at the time and space where Sorkin has somewhat ambivalently set his film.
By honing in on a single point in Ball’s life, Sorkin sidesteps a number of storytelling challenges inherent in a biopic of a figure as towering as Ball, who otherwise can’t be readily captured in a single movie (even one that clocks in at over two hours). There’s no mandate that he start at the beginning, when Lucy was starring in movies like Dance, Girl, Dance, or that he follow through on the timeline all the way up to the end of her divorce from Arnaz. There’s just the week, the monumental accusation and the outcome, plus the lessons learned from the era’s flirtations with McCarthyism, all neat as you please with a bow on top. Simple. Elegant. Efficient. Yet Sorkin must have more.
In 2021’s best evidence of how easily “more” can become “less,” Being the Ricardos loses the soul of the production the more Sorkin impresses on his audience the difficulties Ball faced as a woman in a man’s world. It’s not that said difficulties need not be addressed, or that they don’t matter; they just don’t demand such aggressive contextualization that they feel stagey instead of real. The scene where Ball reveals her pregnancy to a pack of bewildered executives reads with feigned sobriety, as if Sorkin is sweating behind the camera to suppress the screwball sensibility fostered elsewhere in the movie. He knows the moment is important, but Being the Ricardos doesn’t successfully disconnect the serious from the silly, and the result is a bizarre overabundance of pomp in favor of gravity.
Kidman wades through this soup of mishmashed tones, bonded with Ball’s personality and actively engaged with the comedy legend’s accomplishments, as well as the obstacles that nearly barred her from realizing them. Kidman carries herself with confidence and consideration. She appears constantly aware of the precious heirloom in her care—that of Ball’s legacy—but never comes across as ill at ease with it. Instead she melds with Ball’s holistic femininity: Her sexuality, her vulnerabilities, her ambitions, her needs. Kidman gives each part of the whole an individual weight and cuts through Sorkin’s worst proclivities as a storyteller. It’s hard to stand out when a movie is so over-directed as Being the Ricardos, but Kidman does just that.
This is a colossal production, of course, and while everyone else in the cast has a chance to stand out—Bardem as Arnaz, J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, Tony Hale as Jess Oppenheimer, Alia Shawkat as Madelyn Pugh—no one really does. As for Sorkin, he doesn’t seem as interested in characters as in status, putting more effort into crafting Being the Ricardos as rich, slick prestige bait via DP Jeff Cronenweth and the design team, who bring the 1950s to life with glossy brio. It’s a nice-looking movie, but it isn’t so much a movie about the Ricardos as it’s a movie about Sorkin. Kidman steps out of his shadow within the first 10 minutes. Everyone and everything else winds up languishing in it.
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aarokin Sorkin
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Alia Shawkat, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Clark Gregg, Jake Lacy
Release Date: December 10, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.