The twenty-second episode of I Love Lucy, “Ethel and Fred Fight”, is chocked full of marital conflict and character development. At the center of this, and every episode of I Love Lucy, is Lucille Ball’s adeptness for sight gags and physical comedy. Lucy trying to escape a “burning” building while in a full body cast is hilarious, even 70 years later.
Being the Ricardos is a window into the laugh factory; a fictional behind the scenes look over the week of shooting “Ethel and Fred Fight”. While writer/director Aaron Sorkin captures the character growth and marital quarreling that is synonymous with the iconic television show, Being the Ricardos lacks the humor and joy needed to bring the life of Lucy and Desi to the silver screen. It creates a dearth of direction and makes the film feel fragmented.
This fragmentation also stems from Sorkin’s peculiar framing structure. The events of Being the Ricardos are propped up by a mockumentary style that rears its ugly head right after poignant moments of clarity are created. For instance, a heart to heart between Lucy and Vivian Vance/Ethel is interrupted by a ‘talking head’ that throws the audience back to when Lucy and Desi first met. It’s the biopic equivalent of the Asgard joke at the end of Thor: Ragnarok.
Between the mock interviews, frequent flashbacks, and week in the life framings, Sorkin appears to be melding the biopic framework he developed in Steve Jobs with the stylings of Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice). The two kind of approaches fail to gel in the slightest and make Being the Ricardos inaccessible from the start.
The identity crisis Sorkin generates is not exclusive to the narrative either. Both Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are wildly miscast as Lucy and Desi Ricardo. The duo has nearly zero on screen chemistry, and seem to be playing an exaggerated version of themselves instead of the legendary comedy couple. In the last third, Kidman does seem to finally find the pathos of her character, specifically with her determined genius of the dinner table scene. Unfortunately, Kidman’s realization comes too late as the film ends roughly fifteen minutes after that scene. Sadly, Kidman and Bardem make Sorkin’s already weaker words limp off the page.
While there are brief moments of Sorkin’s former triumphs (largely thanks to a teriffic supporting cast of J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, and Alia Shawkat), Being the Ricardos is the final nail in the coffin for his career as a director.
The Silver Lining
While the two leads are completely out of place, Nina Arianda is pitch perfect as Vivian Vance, the actress who plays Ethel in I Love Lucy. Arianda brings complexity to an individual whose place in the annals of comedy greatness is often overlooked. Her storyline of her frustration to playing second fiddle to Lucy is fantastic, even if it’s gets the shaft in the second half of the film. Being The Ricardos may be an identity crisis, but Arianda certainly knows her character to a T.
Being the Ricardos is now playing in select theaters and on Amazon Prime Video December 21.