By Richard Ades
Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes look at the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, provides the answers to several burning questions.
Question No. 1: Can Aaron Sorkin do comedy? Answer: No. Sorkin has excelled at high-minded dramas such as 2020’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and TV’s The West Wing. But as the writer and director of this film about a comedy classic, he takes a relentlessly dour approach that leaves room for only a handful of chuckles. Fans of I Love Lucy will be disappointed.
Question No. 2: Can Nicole Kidman do comedy? Answer: Yes—but she gets little opportunity here. As I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball, Kidman is both unconvincing and, worst of all, unfunny except during the brief moments when she’s allowed to act out iconic scenes from the sitcom.
Question No. 3: Did they have electric lighting in the 1950s? Answer: Yes, though you’d never know it from Being the Ricardos. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth lights nearly every scene so dimly that you’d think it was illuminated by oil lamps and took place during a total eclipse.
For the one or two people who aren’t familiar with the iconic sitcom, I Love Lucy was about a redheaded screwball named Lucy Ricardo and her bandleader husband, Ricky, who were played by Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. The Ricardos lived in a New York apartment building run by their friends Fred and Ethel Mertz, played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Premiering in 1951, the comedy quickly became a smash hit and ran for six seasons.
Set during a single week of the show’s second season, Sorkin’s movie deals with the unexpected and potentially career-ending rumor that Ball once belonged to the Communist Party. Also during the week, Ball struggles with her suspicions that husband Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is being unfaithful. In addition, she and Arnaz must inform their sponsors that she’s pregnant, after which they hope to convince them to allow her TV character to also be pregnant despite fears that viewers will be shocked and repulsed.
There also are a few side issues that come up: Co-star Vance (Nina Arianda) chafes over the unglamorous image she’s forced to maintain as frumpy neighbor Ethel Mertz; fellow co-star Frawley (J.K. Simmons) tells Ball she’s not giving Arnaz enough on-set respect; comedy writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) complains about jokes that “infantilize” Lucy rather than treating her as a mature woman; and Ball engages in seemingly endless skirmishes with her director and writers over what’s funny and what’s not.
Also, in a flashback to the series’ creation, Ball fights with network bigwigs over her determination to cast her Cuban-born husband as her TV spouse despite their fears that viewers aren’t ready to accept an ethnically mixed marriage.
Whew! That’s a lot of issues. But the real problem is that Sorkin treats them all so seriously, emphasizing each melodramatic moment with overwrought music supplied by composer Daniel Pemberton. A lighter touch would have helped, as well as an occasional chance to remember what made I Love Lucy such a comedic treat. The players aren’t bad—Bardem and Simmons being especially on-target as Arnaz and Frawley, respectively—but their efforts are doomed by Sorkin’s somber approach.
If you think back, we actually had fair warning that Being the Ricardos would be a bad idea. In 2006, NBC coincidentally premiered two series that were set behind the scenes of a sketch-comedy show much like Saturday Night Live: Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Fey’s show, a comedy, ended up running for seven seasons, while Sorkin’s show, an ambitious and serious-minded drama, quickly lost viewers and was canceled after one.
The moral: If you set out to write about comedy, if helps if you do it with a sense of humor.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Being the Ricardos (rated R) opens Dec. 10 in select theaters and Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime Video.