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Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem create an iconic TV sitcom in "Being the Ricardos."

When I was a kid, I watched reruns of I Love Lucy religiously on afternoon TV. I learned how comedy bits and scenes work by seeing the black-and-white episodes about the crazy redhead and her Cuban husband, played by real-life couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. More than that, as a child of immigrants, I related to Ricky Ricardo and his attempts to make sense of American life, as well as America’s attempts to make sense of him. Among other things, that vein of cultural difference was one reason why the show made other sitcoms of its time seem as flavorless as Wonder Bread. A film about the show by Aaron Sorkin, who is clearly as much of a Lucy-head as me, should be catnip for me. Still I walked out of Being the Ricardos feeling unsatisfied and overstuffed at the same time.

The main story takes place during one week in 1952, from the table read on Monday to the filming of the episode on Friday. The shooting is the least of everyone’s worries, as reports surface of Lucy (Nicole Kidman) registering as a communist years ago and being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, a blow that could potentially kill everyone’s careers and a show being watched by 60 million viewers weekly. While that’s going on, she tells Desi (Javier Bardem) that she’s pregnant, and he makes the then-radical decision to have her character go through pregnancy on the show as well. This move outrages the executives at CBS, one of whom sputters, “You can’t put a pregnant woman on television! It’s television!” Amid all this, Lucy wears on everyone’s patience except her husband’s as she fusses with and tweaks a scene at a dinner table which isn’t working.

This is plenty of drama to chew on. As with Sorkin’s other efforts, he assembles a first-rate cast down to the supporting roles (Tony Hale as the head writer, Jake Lacy and Alia Shawkat as two gag writers). Kidman does an uncanny imitation of Ball’s mannerisms as Lucy Ricardo and also creates a character of a perfectionist who fits with Sorkin’s gallery of visionary geniuses who drag their co-workers along because they know best. Bardem’s voice is all wrong for Arnaz, but he still makes a good fist of songs like “Cuban Pete” and “Babalu,” and conveys the confidence of a showman who’s finally enjoying his time after being denied the limelight.

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Oh, but Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin, so he’ll give us sidebars on Lucy and Desi’s first meeting, her underwhelming pre-Lucy career as a film actress, her suspicion that he’s cheating on her, and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) being treated like the unattractive woman in the cast. What, exactly, are the documentary-style interviews with the writers decades later (Ronny Cox, John Rubinstein, and Linda Lavin) supposed to add? Sorkin clearly loves the inner workings of show business, but he never brings us into that no matter how much of it he shows. If only he’d stayed focused, this would have been a more efficient and powerful drama.

Sorkin loves a sports metaphor, so here’s mine after he’s directed three movies: Watching them is like watching a substandard quarterback operate an otherwise excellent offense in football. Through all the victories and even moments of magic, you have the frustrating sense of potential being unrealized. This is not getting better, and Sorkin’s not some rookie who can junk his bad habits in favor of good ones. The solution is clear: Change the guy under center.

Being the Ricardos
Starring Nicole Kidman and Desi Arnaz. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Rated R.

1 COMMENT

  1. My aunt was a writer on the Lucy show and several other Desilu productions and lives in West FW…she is still sharp as a tack I need to get her to see this film and get her honest take.

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