Fleeing the Ricardos

Wow! Lucie Arnaz was right, after all — Nicole Kidman turned out to be an excellent casting choice for the part of Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos. It shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did. I admire Kidman tremendously. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen her be “bad”, although I frequently catch her dropping her American accent from time to time when her roles call for one. On this occasion, the principal worry was that she couldn’t be funny in the precise low brow way that Lucy is, and she can’t. Kidman can do comedy, of course. She can even be sitcom funny, as when she played a version of Samantha Stevens in the 2005 Bewitched movie. But the Elizabeth Montgomery style of comedy is vastly different from the Lucille Ball kind. Kidman is neither as entertaining in the role as Rachel York had been in Lucy (2003) nor a dead ringer for her like Frances Fisher in 1991’s Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter, both of which I wrote about here. Still, Kidman was fine in the the handful of requisite re-enactments of classic Lucy scenes, like the grape-stomping-in-Italy bit. Thankfully such scenes were both short and few. Where Kidman REALLY excelled was in bringing to life the strong-willed, difficult, uncompromising behind-the-scenes Lucy. On a technical level, I was floored by the excellence of her voicework. She really captured Lucy’s distinct, husky, low rasp — I hope she can recover from it!

It’s as a showcase for Kidman’s skills (and those of her co-stars) that Being the Ricardos principally succeeds. I especially enjoyed Tony Hale as I Love Lucy’s take-no-shit showrunner Jess Oppenheimer — a VERY different role from his submissive gopher on Veep. Alia Shawkat was also extremely enjoyable as legendary comedy writer Madelyn Pugh. Nina Arianda, memorable in such films as Florence Foster Jenkins (2018) and Stan and Ollie (2018) was apt, if not sufficiently broad in the backside, for Vivian Vance. J.K. Simmons must have seemed an inspired choice for William Frawley, but by now Simmons is kind of his OWN William Frawley; other than being gruff, he mostly plays a version of himself here. And Javier Bardem works his butt off to be someone he’s not, the matinee-idol-handsome singer, bandleader, and producer Desi Arnaz. Bardem even sings and plays bongos in the film, but is unable to escape the fact that he’s 20 years older than the character, is kind of lumpy and stout around the middle, and possesses the pushed-in, pugilistic pie-pan of an Anthony Quinn instead of a guy who makes girls go weak in the knees with his thousand-watt smile.

Worse, Desi is way underwritten in the film. As it ever was in life, this is Lucy’s show. I’ve always had a difficult time imagining the real Lucy, the formidable powerhouse who made the clown possible. Kidman illuminates the character, an actor’s highest calling. That said…you’ll notice I haven’t said much about Sorkin yet. I’ve never been a member of his cult. I find myself amused by the occasional quip, and impressed by the occasional insight, but in general his supposed “genius” seems to me a lot of smoke and mirrors. He throws everything at his assignments. Some of it sticks, but no more than that. Here I found myself irritated on multiple fronts. First, the thing is steeped in trite cliches, beginning with its weak present participle title gimmick (Regarding Henry, Eating Raoul, Killing Eve, Forgetting Sara Marshall), to its faux documentary use of talking heads (though some, like Linda Lavin or Ronnie Cox are folks we don’t mind seeing), to the kind of stupid, overdone pointless Hollywood cliches like Lucy flirtatiously lighting a cigarette, Lauren Bacall style, as she leans against a soundstage door. This is the kind of thing I hated in Mank, and it never grows newer. I found myself irritated by the I Love Lucy “fan service” gesture of having Frawley and Vance bicker all the time. Okay, I guess that’s what someone wants, but how does it serve the movie? Are they the comic relief? In a movie about Lucille Ball?

Mostly, though, this picture suffers from the usual malady of all bio-pics, Hollywood ones or otherwise. Sorkin seems to have no idea what story he wants to tell. A great romance? A doomed romance? Something about the HUAC witch trials? Something about a strong woman in a man’s world? Something about anti-Latin bigotry, a cross-cultural love affair, and changes in American culture? Something about censorship battles? Well, it turns out the answer is “all of the above”. The movie keeps going from one to the other like a starving p.a. at the craft services table — “I’ll have a donut…and a meatball…and an orange…and a bagel…” And by trying to be ALL the stories, in the end, it ends up being NO story, at least not one, clear show biz fable you’ll take away and remember as a classic, as we do with oh, Walk the Line or Ed Wood.

Sorkin also seems to lack a sense of proportion and where to place appropriate emphasis. Here, he seems to give the same dramatic weight to how Lucy worked out bits of slapstick that one might use for, oh, the invention of the telephone. Even I don’t think such moments are THAT historically important. Sorkin seems more in his element with things like The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Court cases, riots in the streets, the U.S. Constitution. Those things are both momentous and portentous. Where Lucy puts her chair for the comedy routine? Not so much.