Being The Ricardos boasts Aaron Sorkin’s best script in over half a decade and electrifying performances that bring his writing to life, in this look at the turbulent backstage activity behind I Love Lucy.
Aaron Sorkin has established himself as one of the most popular screenwriters in Hollywood, with an instantly recognizable blend of patter and politics that’s made his name more popular even than some of the directors of the films he’s scripted. Here is a writer who gets so into the minds of his characters that he once broke his nose lunging at a mirror while writing dialogue, and that energy is felt in every line of fiery wit.
From The Social Network to Steve Jobs, he has demonstrated a penchant for wringing thrilling moviegoing experiences from dramatizing the lives of intensely motivated people, creative minds focused on their innovative vision to the point of becoming obsessive and controlling. In recent years, however, Sorkin began directing his own scripts, and his lethargic choices behind the camera have proven to be an unfortunate contrast to his energetic writing. Being The Ricardos shows off a more reserved—but no less clever—side of himself, but while his script remains fresh as ever, the direction completely lacks personality, dampening the dynamic characters and their vibrant dialogues with the dull cinematic environment they inhabit.
Being The Ricardos takes place within a single eventful week, during which Lucille Ball was accused of being a Communist while at the same time the tabloids were printing stories about her husband Desi Arnaz’s philandering. Sorkin paints a picture of two entertainers sharing a lifeboat with a similar goal—keep I Love Lucy running—for different reasons. For him, it’s to command respect and authority from high society; for her, it’s to keep him around whenever he’s not cheating. Their turbulent relationship with each other and the tension of keeping up with the show amidst all the chaos characterizes this behind-the-scenes look at sitcom craft, and the drama behind the biggest media phenomenon the country had ever seen.
Sorkin builds all these underlying tensions on top of each other—being accused of communism in the height of the McCarthyism witch hunts, a tempestuous relationship with her charming but unfaithful husband, of maintaining such a high standard of sitcom quality—and then builds scenes on top of that foundational anxiety. With every moment weighted down by so many conflicting factors, the movie constantly runs the risk of being drowned under its own pressure, and it is the performances more than anything else that ultimately make Being The Ricardos a success. The makeup and hairstyling is phenomenal, allowing Nicole Kidman and J.K. Simmons to completely dissolve into their roles, and, even despite the physical dissimilarity, Javier Bardem totally transforms into Desi on the sheer strength of his performance alone. The actors are all tremendous presences, grounding Sorkin’s stylized wit so naturally, as though with the ease of performers who’ve been inhabiting these roles for years. They are comfortable in their showy roles, allowing the performative banter to feel so natural — not unlike an actual sitcom.
Where the film falters, then, is in combining all these parts into a meaningful sum. Sorkin’s crippling reliance on inserting documentary-style narration, talking heads in front of a camera essentially reporting about the emotional reactions to events we are shown, is demonstrative of the larger issue at play, which is that Sorkin’s cinematic language is strictly limited to scriptwriting. The visuals are palpably lifeless, sucking the energy out from what should be an electrifying experience and leaving an unfortunate direct-to-streaming quality to the whole affair. That Being The Ricardos is even remotely engaging is a testament to the excellent cast masterfully delivering Sorkin’s incisive prose, but that so much talent is trapped within such frictionless and unenthusiastic conditions seems a shame.
Amazon Studios will release Being The Ricardos in theaters on December 10, 2021, and globally on Prime Video on December 21.