Being the Ricardos goes out of its way right from the jump to stack layers of artifice in front of the audience, framing itself as being part biopic but also part talking-head documentary; the latter being an extension of its fictionalization with little to add but connectivity between sequences. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin is notoriously a man of structure, so much so that he's now made a movie that is purely about structure, yet which is structured so poorly it can become headache-inducing. Centered around what might have been one of the worst weeks of Lucille Ball's life (Nicole Kidman), the film stacks the deck against her early and repeatedly turns the clock back to show how hard it's been this entire time for the comedic icon. If it sounds messy, it's because it is, not only in the personal melodrama, but in how it's sloppily handled.
Kidman and Javier Bardem star as the titular couple and, though they take up the majority of the real estate, they're far from the most interesting characters. Bardem plays to the camera like it's 1,000 feet away, no doubt an overexaggeration that occurred into the real life of Desi Arnaz, though it feels hokey on screen. The true tragedy of the film is that Nicole Kidman's entire performance is hindered by profoundly uncanny prosthetic make-up. Kidman's striking facial features make her unlike the actual Lucielle Ball in reality, yet there's no reason to hide her under this mask, beyond an adherence to personal fidelity, which is one that no one else is subjected to. It's also ironic that, for a movie about how hard a female creator had it while sitting across the table from schlubby male suits, none of these men are forced to adhere to a realistic make-up regimen while Kidman is trapped behind one. When you can look beyond the plastic adhesives that cling to Kidman, she is delivering a great performance, bringing layers to Ball that we all certainly knew were there but which weren't always visible in front of the sitcom camera system.
Opposite Kidman and Bardem are the actual stars of the movie. J.K. Simmons' performance as William Frawley (the actor that played Fred Mertz in the original I Love Lucy) is far and away the best thing about this feature, getting the bulk of the best lines and playing up the personality of a crotchety man of the era so well that it looks easy. Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance (I Love Lucy's Ethel) is the dark horse of the movie, not present for the poster art and introduced in the film with a string of dialogue that Sorkin gives to make her seem irritating. Thankfully, this first scene's dynamic can't stick because she delivers such a grounded and human portrayal of a working woman in Hollywood (one without Ball's stature) that we can see her as fully formed. Alia Shawkat stars as one of the show's head writers, Madelyn Pugh, offering yet another perspective on a working-woman dynamic that contracts with Lucy while also helping to elevate her in the story.
Sorkin has this inane interest in deconstructing the big jokes of an episode of I Love Lucy for the film, putting Kidman's character on a path to getting it right at all costs. There's no doubt that there is some truth in here, but it comes across more as Sorkin misunderstanding humor than it does Lucy looking for the right approach; ironic because there are moments of the script where Sorkin's own smart, snappy humor draw laughs. We already know that Sorkin doesn't think I Love Lucy was that funny, which makes the odd disconnect in the movie itself make sense, even if it's not fun to watch.
The film paints a bleak portrayal of the creative process with Sorkin using Ball as his own mouthpiece for the relentless pursuit of perfection. Much of the movie is spent with Kidman's character relating specific beats and moments in the episode that they're currently crafting, with the narrative basis for her obsession seldom examined beyond a quippy line that is used to shut down dissension. There's also a clear line of thought about the devotion to creativity that comes at a price for one's personal life, but more time is spent in the movie showing how scared creatives were/are of upsetting a mythical, moral, white audience at home than the deconstruction of a creator and their line of thought.
Where Being the Ricardos succeeds is in offering a biopic that doesn't gloss over the troubles and inane life moments, giving us the collapsing of a marriage and a star's personal life with a one-two punch conclusion that plays as both unearned and rushed. Despite being tied down by obvious and distracting make-up, Nicole Kidman does good work here, though she can't overcome Sorkin's own inane story structure or his lack of style as a director.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Beings the Ricardos is currently in select theaters and hits Amazon Prime Video on December 21st.