Being the Ricardos: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are pitch-perfect
Matthew Turner | On 22, Dec 2021
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, this 50s-set behind-the-scenes drama stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the married stars and producers of the smash hit TV show I Love Lucy, which regularly drew an audience of 60 million viewers. Playing fictionalised versions of themselves named Lucy and Ricky, Lucy and Desi used the surname Ricardo on the show, hence Sorkin’s title.
Part backstage drama and part biopic, the film condenses three real-life biographical incidents into a single week of production. First, columnist Walter Winchell outs Lucy as a Communist, which threatens to end her career. Then, another paper carries a story suggesting Desi has been cheating on Lucy, although Lucy’s fears are initially allayed by the fact that the accompanying photo is from the previous year, taken at an event where she was present.
Finally, as if they didn’t have enough on their plates already, Lucy and Desi choose that week announce to the studio executives and chief sponsors that Lucy is pregnant – and, what’s more, they want to incorporate her pregnancy into the storyline for the show, a groundbreaking move at the time. With pressure from all sides, Lucy throws herself into getting everything right on the show that week, and her obsessive perfectionism begins to grate with cast and crew.
Sorkin structures the show as a mockumentary, allowing older versions of several characters (mostly the writers) to comment on the events of those tumultuous 7 days. However, the gimmick is half-hearted at best and doesn’t really add anything of substance to the story.
More effective are the 40s-set flashback sequences, which Sorkin uses to fill in the details of how Lucy met Desi, their courtship, subsequent marriage and business partnership. In addition, the film uses black-and-white photography to recreate specific scenes from the TV show, including the famous sequence where Lucy crushes grapes in a vat.
Kidman’s prosthetic make-up/digitally altered face takes some getting used to, but she is terrific at portraying the two very different sides of Lucy, the businesswoman who knows exactly what to say to get what she wants on the one hand and the brashly endearing comic performer on the other. Indeed, her comedic performance in the TV show scenes is simply extraordinary, perfectly capturing the essence of Lucille Ball.
Bardem is equally good as Desi, throwing himself into the part with gusto and generating palpable chemistry with Kidman. (“They were either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off”, says one of the commentators.) There’s also terrific support from JK Simmons and Nina Arianda – as Lucy and Desi’s co-stars, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, better known as Fred and Ethel Mertz – while Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy and Tony Hale are great value as the constantly bickering writers.
Sorkin keeps things moving at a decent pace, suffusing the film with his familiar rat-a-tat dialogue and giving each cast member a moment to shine – Arianda’s heartbreaking subplot about Vance’s treatment on the show is particularly moving. TV production is a subject close to Sorkin’s heart and his depiction of the creative process is consistently engaging, but his mostly excellent dialogue includes the occasional anachronism such as “gaslighting” and “showrunner” that takes you out of the story, and you can’t help feeling that he really ought to have known better.
By turns emotionally engaging and laugh-out-loud funny, this is a fascinating behind-the-scenes period drama and a moving portrait of a showbiz marriage, where both partners have power but also vulnerability and all-too-human weakness. It also provides a highly pleasurable nostalgia hit and will have you searching out I Love Lucy clips on YouTube.
Being the Ricardos is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.