Picture, if you will, a Vanity Fair photoshoot with Hollywood favourites Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. A stylist has decided that it would be a blast to have them pose as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; Nicole with her red hair and Javier with his being Spanish and not Cuban at all but whatever. Suddenly things take a surreal turn, Aaron Sorkin has arrived to direct the shoot and he’s making them speak his trademark staccato dialogue. And before we know it, they’re Being the Ricardos.
On paper Being the Ricardos has a promising premise. The majority of its action takes place amid the claustrophobia of a single, make or break, production week. It bustles from the writer’s room to production offices, bitches about script changes with Alia Shawkat, intrudes into dressing rooms, chain-smokes theatrically in backlot alleyways and loves a good gossip. It couldn’t be more Sorkin if Jeff Daniels himself were strutting about tieless and declaiming a soliloquy on the demise of the Republican Party.
America loves to love Lucy (Nicole Kidman). The falling studio star remade herself on TV screens and brought her charismatic Cuban hubby Desi (Javier Bardem) along for the ride and now their show is a beloved fixture of family life. However, fissures in the famous marriage, Lucy’s recent deposition by the House Un-American Activities Committee and a controversial storyline are threatening to topple the two from their pedestal and sink the show for good. And the countdown to showtime has begun!
Despite being cleared by the committee, a radio host has accused the star of the show of being a communist and CBS are worried. Their doubts have a ripple effect across the production and Lucy’s perfectionist spirit cranks up into personal attacks and nitpicking as a displacement activity for her own fears. Co-star Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) feels the sting of Lucy’s sharp tongue as she struggles to evolve Ethel and Desi earns her mistrust as rumours swirl.
Sorkin has a remarkable cast and soap opera level tensions to play with yet Being the Ricardos is made remarkable by its good looks alone. The camera lovingly caresses every corner of Desilu Studios and enjoys its walk down memory lane. It admires Nicole Kidman as she poses improbably in silhouette in a cavernous soundstage and dazzles with nostalgic monochrome moments from the show. But nothing feels real. The artifice goes beyond I Love Lucy, it permeates everything.
One clever device Sorkin employs is to use talking heads from today to flash us further back in time than the week at the centre of the drama. However, Linda Lavin, John Rubinstein and Ronny Cox’s easy, natural manner only serves to further highlight how stilted and careful the rest of the cast back in the ash-free perfection of 1953 are. Even J.K. Simmons’ belligerent drunk William Frawley is impeccable in shirt and speech.
We didn’t love Lucy. Despite its promise and superficial beauty, you cannot lose yourself in such a contrived environment. The makeup is perfect, ashtrays never fill, lines of dialogue tessellate smugly together and Kidman affects attitude after attitude as if that imaginary Vanity Fair shoot has carried on somewhere behind the scenes. Intriguing themes like Lucy’s longing for a sense of home and Desi’s flee from Cuba are frustratingly underexplored. But, hey, at least Bardem is pretty convincing on the congo drum.
Being the Ricardos has a limited opening in cinemas from 10th December before its 20th December release on Amazon Prime Video