It was 70 years ago this past October, on Oct. 15, 1951, that the I Love Lucy TV show hit the airwaves. Not a lot of people owned television sets back in those days, but by the time husband and wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball took their final bow in 1960, a whole lot more did. And they were all watching Ricky and Lucy Ricardo bicker and make-up, episode after episode. One episode in 1953 drew 60 million viewers. Today, networks are happy if they have six.
The significance of I Love Lucy is the framing device of Being the Ricardos, the latest from writer/director Aaron Sorkin. The narrative opens with faux-documentary interviews with creative collaborators from the show—actors all—who sit like they are being interviewed for an I Love Lucy retrospective. Sorkin returns to them throughout the movie to fill in some gaps and provide punch lines. One in particular, “What you got to understand is…” becomes grating almost immediately and gets worse from there.
But these interviews are just an excuse to send the movie back in time to Sorkin’s real narrative: 1953, the week Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) was labeled a Communist. The story broke on Walter Winchell’s Sunday night radio program, and Sorkin follows the fallout through a week of producing an episode of the I Love Lucy show from table-read to filming. That structure also allows Sorkin to jump back even farther, this time to the 1940s, when Lucy was RKO’s “Queen of the Bs” and Desi (Javier Bardem) was the King of the Rhumba Beat at Ciro’s.
The time-hopping does little to help Being the Ricardos, a movie that feels about as inventive as a made-for-cable-TV affair. Some of the dialogue crackles with that Sorkin touch, but the images feel flat and bored. Not boring, but bored. Bardem is convincing as the energetic Arnaz, but Kidman is static, full of thoughtful stares as she tries to fix a scene, her marriage, and her politics all in the same week. Some of these moments capture the creative process of Ball improving a scene—brief instances where Being the Ricardos take flight while Ball imagines various versions of a comedic bit in black and white.
That works. What doesn’t work is Sorkin’s collapsing of time to ratchet up the tension. And not just the time-hopping between past (’40s), present (’53), and future (2000ish), but the collapsing of historical time. The episode of I Love Lucy that drew 60 million viewers was in January 1953, with Lucy giving birth to her son. The Winchell broadcast that labeled Ball a Commie was in September 1953. And that Confidential story of Arnaz’s extramarital affairs broke in January 1955.
Sorkin could’ve hung his narrative on any of these and still found plenty for one movie. Instead, he crams in all three while trying to resolve the show’s satellite issues: Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and her frustration with playing the frumpy second fiddle; William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and his resentment of being the show’s resident fuddy-duddy; Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and his constant fight for creative control; and Arnaz’s ability to manipulate everyone in the room, even CBS and Phillip-Morris.
All of these characters, and about a dozen more, get names and lines, but little else. It helps if you have a working knowledge of the show and the era it came out of because Sorkin can’t quite get you there. The new podcast from TCM, The Plot Thickens, Season 3: Lucy, can. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for either, but less of one for the movie.
Being the Ricardos (2021)
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch
Starring: Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 124 minutes, Opens December 10 in theaters, and on Amazon Prime Dec. 21, 2021.