‘Being the Ricardos’: Best, worst of Nicole Kidman as Lucy

Aaron Sorkin told the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s “Social Network” upbringing and explored the rise of Apple in “Steve Jobs.”

Now, in “Being the Ricardos,” he turns his gaze to a different kind of vision: Lucille Ball.

The film, now available to stream on Amazon Prime, follows one tumultuous week in the lives of America’s favorite redhead (played by Nicole Kidman) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) in 1952. While filming an episode of the popular sitcom, “I Love Lucy,” The pair grapple with a series of crises – including rumors of infidelity, a congressional investigation into Paul’s former Communist Party affiliation, and a potentially doomed pregnancy for the show at a time when the child was clearly considered taboo. (No, these things didn’t all happen at once. It’s an exciting license.)

The supporting cast includes J.K. Simmons as the evil William Frawley (who played neighbor Fred Mertz), Nina Arianda as the frustrated Vivian Vance (also known as Ethel Mertz) and Alia Shawkat as Madeleine Pugh writer.

Hollywood loves a biographical movie, especially one that also talks about the industry. “Being the Ricardos” has all the trappings of award-favorites — but the choice of Bardem and Kidman also raised eyebrows.

Times staff writer Meredith Blake and culture columnist Mary McNamara analyze the extent to which this skepticism is justified.

Meredith Blake: When this movie was announced back in January, the prospect of Nicole Kidman – an excellent actress who can be quite funny but isn’t exactly known for action body comedy or rubber-faced expressions – infuriated many of the people above. I’ll admit I was less interested in the Kidman part of the equation than the “Writing and Directed by Aaron Sorkin” part. A story about a pioneering female artist at the height of her power, and during a pregnancy that would literally change the TV industry, told by a filmmaker with a penchant for portraying ambitious women as neurotic madmen? no thanks!

I will say that “being the Ricardos” didn’t make me as stabbed as I expected. There is something about hearing Sorkin’s signature speeches coming out of the mouth of a woman and not, say, a middle-aged white news anchor, which automatically makes them feel less awesome. To his credit, Sorkin is clearly keen on presenting a complex portrait of America’s sweetheart, portraying Ball as prickly, requiring a pain in the ass she can escape because she is a once-in-a-century comic genius. It’s so rare for women to get the “beautiful mind” treatment (see: almost every bio about an artist, musician, writer, or scientist) that I think it’s something to celebrate, even if everything else in the movie is disappointing.

Let’s start with the obvious: Kidman and Javier Bardem are generally excellent actors, but they are wrong about the roles they play. How would anyone have thought that these two could capture the soul of Lucy and Desi – especially when Katherine Hahn and Jaime Camil were there! – Out of my control.

The participation of these Oscar winners may have helped convince Jeff Bezos to spare some of the money he would have spent going into space for a few seconds. I’ve also been baffled by the documentary’s vanity, which crumbles under the slightest bit of scrutiny. When was this non-existent documentary made, exactly? Why does it seem today as if everyone involved died a long time ago? The whole device seems to me a clumsy way for Sorkin to provide some explanatory dialogue that might have been unnecessary anyway.

I’ve also been baffled by the way the movie makes J. Edgar Hoover a hero that saves Ball’s reputation. But I get ahead of myself. Marie, what do you think of all this?

Mary McNamara: Kathryn Hahn! I’ve never missed her as much as every minute of that movie, which I spent searching for one glimpse of someone who looked like Lucille Ball.

Resumes are definitely difficult for actors – which is why a large percentage of Academy Awards go to biopic shows – and “Being the Ricardos” has an extra level of difficulty. Kidman plays a character who was also playing a character, and the gap between Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball is actually quite wide, while the gap between Lucy Ricardo and Nicole Kidman isn’t as big a gap as the Grand Canyon. Kidman is known for taking big chances, but this particular group has, unfortunately, proven to be beyond owners, and she couldn’t land either of them.

No one can capture the genius of the deceptively bright silver ball, but Kidman’s signature ice stillness, “ready for close-ups,” as I said, contrasts with the versatility and raw, tangible energy harnessed to become the most powerful woman on television. Also, and I realize I’m not the first person to say this, the movie is rarely funny, in large part because Sorkin never allowed Kidman, a talented comedian, to be funny. It’s as if the mission was “Play Lucille Ball and don’t laugh.” Which is a big problem.

Javier Bardem in “Being the Ricardos”.

(Glenn Wilson/Amazon Content Services LLC)

In a weird way, Bardem was a great tool for Kidman in that, too, he was playing an alternate universe version of Desi/Ricky — a reasonable Desi would have made matters worse, and they come alive as a couple. Just not the couple referred to in the title.

As for Hulk, well, I’d forgive most things if it meant I’d be watching the great Linda Lavigne (as old Madeleine Pugh), even for a little while, so it didn’t bother me setting up the documentary. Sorkin chose to focus on a week in which Paul was harassed, and likely blacklisted, by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and which allows Sorkin to do what he does best — criticizing the worst aspects of American politics.

For dramatic purposes, he also chose to make this week the same week the producers/stars are demanding that Lucy’s pregnancy become part of the show, even as Lucy destroys reports that Desi has been unfaithful. All of these things happened, but not at the same time. If someone else had made the movie, the tension between the couple’s revolutionary demand to make their television marriage more realistic as their real marriage faces collapse may have led to something more emotionally interesting (and – an added bonus – the horrific appearance of J. Edgar Hoover) as a white knight. would be unnecessary). But Sorkin is Sorkin. I didn’t know the whole “Lucy a Communist” story, so that was very interesting to me, especially at this very moment. Sure enough, the desperate play of swinging the masses was horribly current.

I was slightly interested in the way William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) came to be the streak of All Wisdom, often at the expense of Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who spent much of the film worrying about her appearance, or how a younger Madeleine had used Pugh (Alia Shawkat) as a marketer. Mouth to worry that Lucy’s character was a child. Simmons, Arianda, and Shawkat are all totally awesome, so I’m glad they have things to do, but… what do you think?

Megabyte: you are rightAnd Kidman doesn’t sound funny, which is unfortunate. But I’ll give her credit for nailing Lucy’s husky-smoking voice (brought to you by Philip Morris, just like the show!).

I agree that the supporting cast, while great, are not necessarily put to good use. Vivian Vance’s story—which wasn’t—really—felt shorthand rather than sympathetic—and as for Shawkat, I’m pretty sure almost no one used the word “childhood” in 1952 casual conversation.

I don’t really object to how Sorkin manipulated the schedule to make it seem like all of these things happened in the same week. (Although it does make me wonder again why there was a documentary that was out for about a week and didn’t actually happen that way. Sorry, Marie, I’m not letting go of that movie. Linda Lavigne though.) I prefer a biographical movie It focuses on a separate chapter in a person’s life rather than giving us the narrative from cradle to grave. The pressure of the timeline allowed him to explore the thematic themes in this story, so be it.

However, even with Sorkin’s historical motifs, I still found everything to be wildly lethargic. Maybe it’s because I already know that Lucy and Daisy eventually broke up, that CBS agreed to the pregnancy story and that Ball continued to have a thriving career despite the best efforts of Walter Winchel and his ilk. I never felt like so much was at stake.

Besides, Lucy herself never seems to worry about the possible fallout from courting communism. Instead, she’s more interested in making sure of every joke on the show floor. I’m particularly focused on a scene in which Lucy is trimming some flowers to put on the dinner table before the Meretz comes. Time and time again Sorkin takes us to Ball’s head as she envisions better and funnier versions of this scene. It’s a clever way to illustrate her comedic brilliance and her uncanny understanding of the art form.

However, it all just falls flat because almost none of Lucy’s suggestions make the final version of the episode they’re filming – a choice that I found quite odd. If this was a movie about a creative genius, wouldn’t it make sense for Lucy to obsess over seemingly insignificant details Act Ending up on the show and finally making it funnier?

Are we supposed to believe that Sorkin’s fictionalized version of this episode would be better than the real one? Does he do to “I Love Lucy” what he did to TV news with “The Newsroom” – saying, effectively, “This is the best version I’ve written with the benefit of hindsight”? If so, that’s some serious rudeness!

Am I wrong here?

millimeter: You are not wrong about the result, but I do not know the intention. Sorkin has a singular narrative structure and brevity very different from – to the point of disagreement with – the broad theatrical comedy I Love Lucy. The series, and Ball’s trademark comedy, is not the focus of “Being the Ricardos”; He is more interested in exploring Lucy and Desi in terms of strength rather than art. I loved the scenes that showed the artist’s hard work, and how each movement and line was crafted, but I hope the movie takes the art itself seriously. We’re told, over and over again, that Ball is the lovable star on TV, but we never see why. Focusing on the mechanics of the equilibrium process, the film misses the magic. This is a great shame.

I’m not saying that looking at Lucy and Desi’s partnership in terms of strength isn’t very interesting – they were an amazing pair, and the fact that they both had the strength they did is pretty miraculous. Which is why the movie was a huge disappointment for me. Although it moved on in a quick Sorkin-ian clip, it drew this thread and, in the end, felt more educational than inspirational. She hit all the signs of Ball’s great story, but she doesn’t seem too interested in who she is, and what made her so likable.

Yes, she was tough, but she was also a full-body performer and wasn’t afraid to pull her heart out for a laugh. Sorkin’s humor is cerebral, all snappy and intelligent. Which is great. But Paul and Arnaz were quite the opposite – extremely physical, and overwhelmingly emotional. I think that was my problem with the movie. For all the relationships she had, she had no real heart.

On the other hand, the costumes were great.

Megabyte: actually. It’s time for me to invest in some pants.

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