Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem Bring Breezy Intensity to ‘Being the Ricardos’

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Man and woman face each other, talking.
Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman in ’Being the Ricardos.’ (Photo: Glen Wilson; © Amazon Content Services LLC)

Less than a decade before newly appointed Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow famously described television as “a vast wasteland” in his first public speech—at a 1961 meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C.—I Love Lucy was the top-rated TV show with a weekly audience of 60 million.

Minow may or may not have been including the well-crafted ’50s sitcom (which spawned three successors) among his targets. Surely the show, which starred married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as married couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, was a few cuts above most of the now-forgotten “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families” (another phrase from Minow’s talk) strewn throughout TV Guide’s weekly listings.

I Love Lucy connected with later generations via reruns, and still retains a great deal of affection—despite its pre-feminism anachronisms—thanks to Ball’s endearing and enduring charm and precise comic timing. The show’s iconic stature no doubt had something to do with the prolific writer Aaron Sorkin’s decision to pen and helm the feature film Being the Ricardos (in theaters now before streaming on Amazon Prime starting Dec. 21). The bigger reason, I think, is that Sorkin is at home on the set of a TV show. To put it another way, he’s a creature of television.

His first TV foray, the short-lived late-’90s series Sports Night was about a cable TV show, and 15 years later he set The Newsroom at another kind of television program. Sorkin’s biggest success, of course, remains The West Wing, a TV show that ran for 155 episodes. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Sorkin has framed this line from that same Minow speech: “When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better.”

Man holds newspaper that reads "Lucille Ball a Red"
Javier Bardem in ‘Being the Ricardos.’ (Photo: Glen Wilson; © Amazon Content Services LLC)

Sorkin’s forte throughout his career is taking us behind the scenes, and that’s his entry point and the focus of Being the Ricardos. He hones in on a particularly fraught week in I Love Lucy’s second season when the stars are clamped in the vise of dual (and dueling) public scandals: Walter Winchell has inferred on the radio that Lucy is or was a communist—a career-ending offense in 1952, thanks to Sen. Joe McCarthy and his enablers—while a tabloid has published allegations that Desi is having an affair.


The writer-director uses those pressure points to compress a significant chunk of Ball and Arnaz’s marriage and careers into the five-day workweek of producing an episode of I Love Lucy. Rarely less than riveting, and kept aloft by the breezy intensity of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem’s lead performances, Being the Ricardos is a crisp, enjoyable and ultimately superficial movie.

Sorkin is nothing if not ambitious, and his screenplay encompasses a slew of subjects: the depiction of women on TV, the power and ego dynamics in a room of comedy writers, and the challenges of balancing career and family. Sorkin’s ability to introduce and intertwine these narrative and thematic threads is impressive, and his dialog is as sharp-elbowed as ever.

He effectively conveys Ball’s innate ability to shape a sequence in an I Love Lucy episode for maximum laughs, and succinctly depicts the primal Hollywood connection between stardom and leverage. Sorkin wades, more shallowly and less successfully, into the morass of loyalty, love, lust and ambition that is the particular province of creative and famous couples.

Three women sit close together, one holds another's hands.
Alia Shawkat, Nicole Kidman and Nina Arianda in ‘Being the Ricardos.’ (Photo: Glen Wilson; © Amazon Content Services LLC)

Sorkin would like to be the modern Joseph L. Manckiewicz (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives) but he’s perpetually too clever, and too glib. He creates zinger-spouting facsimiles of human beings, not people we yearn, suffer and revel with. Sorkin’s interest in his characters begins with their propensity to deliver his chiseled banter and ends with their positioning on the game board in the course of his carefully contrived plot moves.

He can’t resist the twist that snaps into place with a nearly audible click. Sorkin is a master of craft, to be sure, but that craft and control assumes the air of manipulation at climactic moments. This viewer, at least, rarely encounters a spontaneous, emotional reaction in Sorkin’s work, including Being the Ricardos; so much of it feels calculated and calibrated.

By the end, Lucille Ball’s stated desire for a home—where she and Desi would play with the kids on the couch every night, presumably—morphs from an important core impulse into a smart-guy variation on the fictional Ricky Ricardo’s signature line, “Honey, I’m home!” It turns out that home is where the set is for Lucy, too.

‘Being the Ricardos’ is in select Bay Area theaters. It begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Dec. 21. Details here.