REVIEW: Being the Ricardos [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 125 minutes
    Release Date: December 10th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Amazon Studios
    Director(s): Aaron Sorkin
    Writer(s): Aaron Sorkin

It was a scary goddamn week.

The tabloids were running an article about Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) having an extramarital affair. The radio was insinuating Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) was a communist. And the two of them had planned to go into the studio the next morning to let everyone know they were having another baby. Whether all that happened on the same night or not—Aaron Sorkin has never been shy with bending the truth or timelines for additional drama—you cannot deny it’s a lethal combination for a rousing behind-the-scenes fireworks show. Inject a few flashbacks to complement the present-day excitement with contextually relevant glimpses into how these two found themselves embroiled in the type of chaos that could end their careers let alone marriage and it’s impossible not to be entertained.

Anyone who knows Sorkin’s career as a screenwriter shouldn’t be surprised that Being the Ricardos proves a fast-paced, impeccably timed, and tensely measured comedy. Taking place during the course of one week with the looming uncertainty of whether or not the script they’ve been rehearsing and blocking would even be filmed on Friday, the whole finds itself taking the best pieces of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (a sprawling cast brought together by quippy dialogue and emotional epiphanies—perhaps manipulatively so), Steve Jobs (a single-environment backbone via Desilu Studios), and “The Newsroom” (backstage production conflicts) to create another well-oiled machine of captivating fun. For us, of course. None of what occurs is particularly fun for its stressed-out and temperamental characters. They’re desperately searching for ways to survive.

It becomes a shell game. We’re following one card (the show potentially getting cancelled if that rumor becomes actual news using Ball’s name) while the other two distract attention. It makes sense since the Red Scare is out of their control. It will affect their obligation to roll cameras despite heavy uncertainty, but public opinion—not the truth—ultimately seals their fate. Lucy has no choice but to focus on Arnaz’s alleged indiscretion instead. She knows the photo is “fake” (it’s from a party she attended with him months ago), but her curiosity is piqued regardless considering he’s spent a lot of time away from home. And Desi must shift focus to the pregnancy and if he can cajole the studio into controversially writing it into the show.

There’s also an obvious love and appreciation for who Lucy and Desi were as creative powerhouses. Everything that happens on set, at table reads, or in the writers’ room becomes filtered through Ball’s mind in black and white as she seeks to find the comedy. Maybe it’s a matter of finishing the writers’ (Alia Shawkat‘s Madelyn Pugh, Jake Lacy‘s Bob Carroll, and Tony Hale‘s executive producer Jess Oppenheimer) thoughts or reworking the entire scene until it’s right (and always better). She’s portrayed as a master of her craft when punching up the scripts and visual comedy with a pragmatic air. Her improvements are objective regardless of what the people being corrected think. Could she have been more diplomatic? Maybe. But the stakes are too high to compromise brilliance.

And everything that occurs in business meetings is filtered through Arnaz’s smile. He’s pulling strings like a puppeteer and creating miracles like a magician with nothing more than his inherent charisma as a weapon against simple-minded fear. Desi knows what he and Lucy have built. He knows their value to both CBS and Phillip Morris is higher than the suits in the room pretend they can trick him into believing. He calls them on their bluffs as often as he wins his own. So much that happens is practically left to a coin toss and it seems to always go his way. Maybe that knack helps Desi get too cocky for his own good, but it also got him where he is right now. That and Lucy’s love.

Sorkin hinges Being the Ricardos on the idea of “home.” It’s what Lucy says she wants when she first meets Desi and it’s what they couldn’t have at the start of their relationship. He was selling out clubs with his band. She was rising the dramatic ranks at RKO. Neither was willing to give up their career because of how hard they fought to achieve what little success they had. “Home” couldn’t therefore exist without fiction. The sole avenue towards seeing each other for more than a couple hours a day was working together every hour of the day. That obviously brings its own complications (especially in the 50s and 60s with two type-A personalities unafraid to show their strength and refuse compromise) until “home” becomes their demise.

Their “children” don’t help matters either. Despite the media chaos and looming threat of cancellation, the people working on “I Love Lucy” still have their own troubles with which to contend. Pugh sought to make her voice heard while contending with men who didn’t see her as an equal. Carroll attempted to escape his role as whipping boy even as his latest ideas cemented why he was. Oppenheimer is anxiously juggling the realization that his worth to the show—no matter how integral—was never going to be as great as its stars. And co-stars Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) are desperate to break free of and embrace the limitations of their roles respectively. Everyone is fighting tooth and nail for respect.

It’s a massive juggling act on its own without Sorkin’s decision to both go back in time (the flashbacks are always as funny as they are informative) and forward (using older versions of Pugh, Carroll, and Oppenheimer to, perhaps unreliably, narrate that week’s complexities). It’s also perhaps his best work behind the camera since the back and forth is never confusing or overly complicated. This is a tight two-plus hours with every action and word proving crucial to what’s coming. Secrets shared in the past hold relevance in the present. Seemingly innocuous (or frustrating) compulsions are as much about distracting the user as they are fixing a problem that’s there regardless of whether anyone else sees it. And the cast ensures the nuance of such duality shines through.

Each character toes the line between self-serving vehemence and heartfelt compassion. Vivian wants to be more than the sidekick on-screen, but knows Lucy needs her to be the sidekick in life to ensure she gets through this. Jess wants to assert his authority even as it’s taken from him in real time, but he won’t let the pettiness, sarcasm, and verbal attacks he dishes as well as he receives cloud his friendships. These are extremely talented artists balancing egos, awe, and success against human interest and love. Hale and Arianda steal many scenes through their conflicted opposition, but none of it works without Kidman and Bardem carrying the weight of these titular icons on their shoulders. They’re great during the good times and even better during the bad.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.