I’ve never seen much virtue in writing a negative review of anything. Making something is hard and missing the mark is the most common outcome for any of our ventures in life; but, that being said, there is some merit in trying to figure out why something doesn’t work. Aaron Sorkin’s most recent directorial effort, Being the Ricardos, is a behind the scenes look at a week in the production of an episode of I Love Lucy. The film boasts a Sorkin screenplay, an all-star cast led by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, as well as an interesting and largely untold story about an iconic figure in the history of tv and film. Despite all that, the film just doesn’t really work, and I’m pretty curious about how that happened.
It would be going too far to say that Being the Ricardos is a bad film. I still found it engaging and watchable all the way through. But, of course, I did. I’m basically, for good and ill, the stereotypical embodiment of Sorkin’s exact demographic. Many of the key scenes and sequences hit me the way I believe they were intended to. After decades of breaking stories on stage and screen, Sorkin knows how to carry an audience along. Just the same, I can’t point to any part of the film where I had a clear handle on what the intended tone of the film was supposed to be.
In the lead-up to the film’s release, there was significant backlash over the casting of the film. It turns out there was a ravenous, pent-up demand for a film about Lucille Ball, but that prospective audiences revolted at the thought of her being played by Nicole Kidman. People were generally skeptical that Kidman had the comedy chops to play the star of I Love Lucy, and, well, they were right. Kidman was fairly decently cast for the film Aaron Sorkin wrote, but that wasn’t at all the film this audience wanted to see. Sorkin has taken great pains in interviews around this film to make clear that he was telling a dramatic story about Lucille Ball, not a comedy starring her character Lucy Ricardo. Sorkin’s mistake may have been in thinking he could do one without committing fully to also do the other.
The story of Being the Ricardos is: during a particular week of production of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball is contending with three off-stage crises that are all coming to a head simultaneously: an exposé about her husband’s infidelity, a battle with the network, and sponsors of her show about being the first pregnant character on a television show, and the breaking news that she had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about having once registered as a member of the communist party. Sorkin takes some creative license by placing these events all in the same week, but these are all things that happened during the run of I Love Lucy.
Sorkin does manage to weave these disparate elements together like they’re the A, B, and C plots of an episode of one of his shows, where each thread is highlighting the tension between Lucy’s career and her lifelong desire for some kind of stable family life. And, structurally, they do all tie together in the end. When Lucille’s real-life husband, Desi, comes through the door of the I Love Lucy set as his character Ricky, calling out, “Lucy, I’m home,” we watch Lucille struggling to respond, and we understand that all of her efforts to hold her show and family together have been for naught.
Throughout the film, the growing narrative is that Desi has been coming home less and less, ostensibly staying up late playing cards on his boat with friends to blow off steam, but clearly getting up to more than just that. The irony is that the whole motivation for Lucille agreeing to do I Love Lucy in the first place is so that she and Desi would finally have a way to both have their careers and be able to spend time together. Desi’s infidelity, her pregnancy, and her growing red scare are each conspiring to destabilize the show that ties together the life the two of them have built together. They manage to save the show. They strongarm the network into letting Lucille be pregnant on television. They get the FBI to make a statement publicly clearing Lucille of any suspicion of un-American wrongdoing. But, coming off these historic wins, it feels jarring when the then-what-happened text at the end of the film tells us they would go on to get divorced anyway.
The core problem of the film may be that it’s overstuffed. Sorkin ties together threads that don’t really get along well together. There’s surely something to the story of a young Lucille Ball checking the registration box for the communist party to please her grandfather, as a contrast to the story of a young Desi Arnaz fleeing Cuba because of a communist revolution. There is surely something to the contrast between the iconic housewife character of Lucy Ricardo and the trailblazing media mogul that portrayed her. There is surely something interesting to the contrast between the happy friends of the TV show I Love Lucy and behind the scenes squabbling of the actors who portrayed them. There is surely something interesting to how groundbreaking I Love Lucy was just as a technological feat that would go on to transform how tv shows would be made from then on. There is surely something to the story of the serious behind the scenes work it takes to create effortless-seeming comedy on screen. There is surely a worthwhile story to be told about anyone standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and managing to come out on top. There is surely something to the story of the first pregnant mother character that American families saw on TV and how her co-star and real-life husband was cheating on her in real life the entire time. All of these stories are interesting, just not when you try to tell them all at once.
A secondary problem for Being the Ricardos is a similar issue that Sorkin had with his show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin is capable of writing comedic situations for his characters or writing enviably naturalistic witty-banter, but he gets utterly hamfisted when he tries to write a character that is trying to be funny. Studio 60 was his much-maligned show, looking at the behind the scenes of a show like Saturday Night Live. Canceled after one season, a lot of it was much better than it got credit for at the time, but the core criticism of the show was as true then as it is now: the central premise of the show demanded adept comedy writing, and Sorkin just doesn’t have that talent in his otherwise ample toolkit.
There is a version of Being the Ricardos - both film and screenplay - that may actually lend itself to a stage production, something where the audience is more primed for witty speechifying, and on a platform much further removed from the medium in which the audience is most used to seeing Lucille Ball. For how many stories Sorkin is trying to tell, there may have also been an even better version of this story if it were told as a limited series. Give each story thread its own episode with its own theme, rather than try to force them all together. In its current form, I can go, so far as to say, that Being the Ricardos was a perfectly fine use of my time, but also an unsuccessful mess in that, having seen it twice now, I’m still not at all clear what it’s trying to say about anything.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.