Now Playing — Being the Ricardos

Aaron Sorkin channels a lot of his interests into Being the Ricardos. The writer-director hits upon political bullying, television production, creatives bucking against killjoy executive, and snappish relationships predicated on a version of romance that has no apparent love in it. In its fundamentals, the film is a biopic of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), using a particularly momentous week of production on the sitcom I Love Lucy, with a few choice flashbacks, to illustrate the ways the famed performer shrewdly deployed her comedic gifts and convey the major obstacles faced by a woman in Hollywood, especially at the time. As Ball grueling takes cast and crew through the process of fixing a dinner party scene in the new television episode, she also frets over the looming scandals involving her bygone Communist Party membership and the infidelity of her husband, and costar, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem).

Being the Ricardos is the latest feature where Sorkin inadvertently makes the argument that he might be the worst possible director to shepherd his own scripts to the screen. Every bad choice and persistent tic Sorkin the writer puts into the script is lovingly preserved by Sorkin the director. Despite his many detractors, Sorkin is at such an elevated stature among Hollywood screenwriters that it might be folly to think that anyone would be given the authority to make valuable changes to his work. Even so, I’d like to think a suitably spine-strengthened director with a lick of sense would have immediately jettisoned the horrendous faux documentary inserts Sorkin put into the script, providing tedious explanations of details that could have been easily dramatized. In general, the film is awash in Sorkin’s tendency to explain what doesn’t need to be explained, then restate the explanation, and finally have another character address the redundancy of the restated explanation as means to offering the same explanation a third time. It’s exhausting. More problematically, it slackens the narrative. The characters are in stressful situations with absolutely no sense of urgency.

Kidman is strong in a performance that could have easily gone very wrong, given the mighty temptation for caricature. She approximates Ball’s raspy voice and borrows the wry, snappy cadence of the actress’s turns in nineteen-forties film comedies, when it briefly seemed bigscreen stardom was a real possibility. The mannered emoting that I think has crept into some of Kidman’s performances of late is completely gone. Kidman focuses on deep, intricate character work, as if determined to liberate Ball from the more reductive assessments of her life and career (including the assessment embedded in Sorkin’s screenplay, to be frank). She’s matched by Nina Arianda, who plays I Love Lucy costar Vivian Vance with an emotional acuity that broadens the humanity of the boilerplate conflicts in her chunk of the film’s story. The two of them manage an accomplishment that eludes their director, not to mention their two main male costars, Barden and J.K. Simmons (playing final I Love Lucy costar William Frawley): Kidman and Arianda escape the smothering gimmickry of Being the Ricardos.

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