Movie Review: Being the Ricardos

I was one of many that hated the casting choices of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem to play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s because they look nothing like the real life characters. It’s easier to take when actors play characters in history we might not know exactly what they looked like (some scientist or artist from hundreds of years ago that we’ve only seen in photos). I cringed when they cast Val Kilmer to play Jim Morrison and Anthony Hopkins to play Richard Nixon – although I should have learned from that, because both of those actors were great in those roles. And so were Kidman and Bardem in this. So while I thought perhaps Debra Messing and John Leguizamo, and a few other actors look more like the real couple, Kidman and Bardem knocked it out of the park.

The supporting cast did as well. Actor J.K. Simmons didn’t look exactly like Fred Mertz, but if you can get Simmons to be in your movie, you do it. He conveyed the perfect range of emotions here. We start out thinking he’s just there for the paycheck, and to down some booze. Yet he has a few interesting heart-to-heart conversations with Lucy.

His TV wife is played by Nina Arianda (Stan & Ollie), who actually looked a lot like Vivian Vance. Her performance is also terrific.

I had wished King Richard had been more about Serena Williams’ life, and not her dad, and merely the start of her professional tennis playing. I’ve seen other biopics where they just show one segment of the artist’s life (a big concert, speech, or sporting event), and they use that to springboard into flashbacks on how that person got to that point in their life. The way Aaron Sorkin did that here, with the Ricardos working on their show during a tumultuous week, worked very well. 

In the early ‘50s, there were 60 million people watching I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball hadn’t found success on the big screen, and started working in radio. She then got a big break on TV and had finally attained stardom. Her husband Desi had money from a rich family in Cuba as well as success as a nightclub entertainer. 

It’s always fun when we see the backstage stuff on a TV show when it’s done well. I loved how it was done in one of the best comedies ever – Tootsie in 1982, and Soapdish 10 years later. There’s probably been a more recent movie showing how a TV show is made that was good, it’s just not popping into my mind.

Anybody that knows anything about TV’s most famous couple, already knows about his infidelity. But what’s surprising is that during this week of filming their TV show (live in front of a studio audience), they’re dealing with Lucy being pregnant and the suits not being happy about that. Lucy and Desi want to introduce that as a storyline in future episodes. Also, Lucy is being accused of being a communist. It’s crazy to think that either of those things could end your career today, but this was a different time. Couples on TV couldn’t even be shown sleeping in the same bed! [side note: they had no qualms about their cigarettes, though; it seems there wasn’t a scene where someone didn’t light up]

Having Sorkin write sharp dialogue makes it a lot more interesting when a producer (Tony Hale), head writer (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development), and show director (Christopher Denham) argue over various elements of the show. It all makes for great pacing of the picture, too.

At first, making this appear to be a quasi-documentary with people associated with the show commenting back on their time working on it, didn’t work for me. Yet after the second scene with those talking heads, you don’t mind. I also got a kick out of the fact that some of those talking heads were played by actors I watched on TV as a kid in the ‘70s – Linda Lavin (from Alice) and Robert Pine (from ChiPs, and father of Chris).

The only two complaints I have is that they stuffed an awful lot into this story. Also, Sorkin has a style of writing that gives his characters a cadence that often sounds similar. He should mix it up a bit (I remember feeling the same way about David Mamet at some point in his career).

When I watch a movie as interesting as this, I always wonder how much of it was fictionalized. Did Arnaz really make all the couple’s business decisions? Did Lucy really have such a need to make a scene just right, that she’d call cast members in at 2 a.m. to rehearse a scene? Did a female writer on the staff really get bothered that Lucy was a bit of a ditz on the show instead of making her more intelligent? Who knows? But I was entertained as hell watching it all go down.

You can see it in theatres now, and on December 21st it will be on Prime Video. It’s one of the best films of the year.

4 stars out of 5.

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