Remember the four worst things that ever happened to you? The four biggest challenges to your family, livelihood, reputation, or whatever? Now imagine if an evil time-travel despot had folded your timeline in on itself and all four moments of The Worst had befallen you in the same week. Be grateful they didn’t, but just imagine…what if? Enormous pain, right?
That’s the narrative conceit of Being the Ricardos, the third true-story project from writer/director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7, Molly’s Game), yearning to avoid the trappings of a formulaic three-hour biopic, with their pedestrian history-book retelling and their leaps and bounds across their subject’s unremarkable years to deliver the Good Parts version of someone’s life. If it’s inescapable that your Hollywood production will bend some truths to achieve Art no matter what, why not embrace compromise and use your truth-bending skills to weave a smaller, tighter basket and have all the conflicts happen at the same time? While we’re at it, why not also have a film in which Queen Elizabeth II mourns the death of her father, Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, and Prince Philip all happening in the same week? Historians would have apoplexies, but just imagine the potential pageantry of a Hollywood-designed four-way royal funeral procession.
Thus is the contrived confluence of fates in store for our married stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Together they’re the headliners of TV’s I Love Lucy, which I shouldn’t have to explain to you unless you’re truly too young to know what that is and your parents and schools did a terrible job of teaching you important TV history. In its heyday the show boasted millions upon millions of viewers and was kind of a big deal. It remains so fondly regarded today that we saw the film two weeks ago in a small-town theater with a surprisingly medium-sized audience, despite its imminent Amazon Prime release. Lucy wasn’t without its controversies, both in the press and behind the scenes, some of which we didn’t learn about till years after the fact because our Baby Boomer parents left a few details out of our upbringing, too.
Most viewers my age remember reading about that time Lucille was pregnant and therefore wanted that written into Lucy’s character so the show could go on and she wouldn’t have to spend every episode hiding her stomach behind furniture. Problem was, a pregnancy would imply a character had had sex, and in 1950s TV that couldn’t happen because viewers had extremely fragile moral compasses after World War II, so all televised content had to be appropriately sanitized in case three-year-olds were watching. Back in those days they didn’t have Sesame Street, Cartoon Network, Baby Einstein, YouTube conspiracy wacko channels, or toys to babysit their tykes. The existence of in utero child prototypes was therefore forbidden, and exceptions were strictly to materialize from nowhere, presumably delivered offscreen by storks or orphanages. Network execs were consequently enraged at those sinners Lucille and Desi for wanting to show marriage’s realistic side effects, basically their era’s version of “grim and gritty”.
Slightly less well known to us youngsters under 60 was Desi’s penchant for womanizing, which ultimately doomed their marriage. Here, Desi has been allegedly caught stepping out on Lucille for what’s treated as the very first time, but the exposé is in a seedy tabloid. Desi explains away the indiscretion by pointing out contextual clues that weaken the allegations, but Lucille has to wonder…is it all really made up? The seeds of doubt are strewn in a few of the film’s corners as she walks through the rest of the week’s much more explosive minefield.
Far more alarming to her bosses at CBS and Philip Morris: new accusations in the press that she’s a Communist. If she really had been one, by 1950s law any male studio exec would’ve been within his legal rights to toss her in a dungeon and replace her with the nearest ingenue. Apparently once upon a time decades earlier, she was handed an important form, checked a box labeled “Communist” for ostensibly uninformed reasons, and never thought twice until the time came when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his minions insisted it should totally be considered a threat to national security, one which they wouldn’t let him solve by forcing American-born Commies into internment camps. Suddenly the studio is alarmed: will this shocking revelation taint I Love Lucy and sway fans into thinking it’s a godlessly un-American cesspool of evil?
Those three distressing issues — pregnancy! adultery! Communism! — rank low on Lucille’s priority list. Most concerning of all, at least to her if no one else: they’re in danger of making a really crappy episode of the show. This week the network has saddled them with director Don Glass (Billions‘ Christopher Denham), who doesn’t understand the basics of blocking or humor but finds work as a sitcom director anyway. The show’s three writers keep squabbling over what is or isn’t funny. Their costars William Frawley and Vivian Vance loathe each other and can barely stand to be in the same room, let alone the same set. And someone’s brilliant idea to write their animosity into the episode isn’t helping. Must Lucille simply solve it all herself?
All the conflicts feel like four episodes woven together. The trailers emphasize the Commie accusations as paramount, while the others are treated as B-stories. It’s a logical emphasis from a marketing department’s “relevance” perspective, in a current age where everyone around us is invasively interested in knowing all our allegiances — whether real or impugned — for the sake of evaluating our tribalist leanings, assessing our threat level, and/or judging our usefulness to them. Remember when we sometimes shook our heads at the concept of gang colors? Now every label is a gang, whether your membership is worn with proud flamboyance or encoded in top-secret clubhouse signals. In the ’50s America decreed the worst gang ever was them darned Commies. Today it’s whichever opponents that You, The Viewers At Home, would see exiled to Greenland or savagely butchered rather than have to share a 245-year-old country with them.
Little do Our Heroes realize they have a fifth problem more troubling than all of the above: Lucille and Desi been zapped out of this reality and replaced by Academy Award Winners Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, gussied up like undercover operatives who lost everything in their mission prep packets except the Polaroids. Kidman’s take on Ball’s offscreen, non-comedic tone is at least one daily cigarette pack shy of the properly growly timbre, while Bardem employs his own voice but with a different accent. Both are stiffer than their counterparts, possibly afraid of looking goofy lest they jeopardize their casting chances in future Oscar bait. Neither are suited to the superb slapstick and exaggerated expressions of which Ball and her ensemble were masters. The simulation’s creakiest moment is a flashback to the famous grape-stomping episode, one of those all-time greats that left a mark on our childhoods. This time when we giggle, we’re not laughing at Lucy Ricardo’s awkward horror; we’re laughing at the humiliation of the prim robot lady from that AMC “We Make Movies Better” commercial who won’t let up on her perfect posture for one lousy second and really throw herself into what was once a hilariously loosey-goosey moment.
After the first half-hour or so my brain begrudgingly accepted the couple as stand-ins in a similar drama inspired by actual events so I could relax, but it was a disappointing compromise. One can imagine the studio laying down the law to Sorkin, “Whoever stars in your new little prestige drama there MUST be pedigreed A-listers, Lucille MUST be a natural redhead, and Jessica Chastain is already shooting six other projects this week! And she’s probably doing them all on purpose just so we can’t ask her to stomp grapes!”
The disparity is all the more glaring as we watch them get brilliantly outshone by their costars Fred and Ethel Mertz. As the actors playing the Ricardos’ perpetually bickering neighbors, the J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda (Amazon’s Goliath) nail the true-life dynamic between the two, from their major age difference to their hate/hate work relationship. Simmons can’t help looking like Simmons trapped in frumpy codger wear, but his trademark gruffness captures the essence of William Frawley as a grumpy, mostly functioning alcoholic who’ll do his job but hasn’t smiled off-camera in years. Arianda well represents for the quartet’s most unsung player, Vivian Vance, who’s sick of being trapped in even frumpier togs so viewers will think she’s believably married to an actor 22 years her senior…and, quite possibly, so there’s no danger of her upstaging her boss Mrs. Ball. (Also to the credit of Arianda and her styling teams: she actually looks like Vance, no CG or masonry-thick makeup required.)
The Mertzes’ workplace issues add to Lucille’s simultaneous burdens, but must nonetheless take a back seat to The Show Must Go On And It Must Not Suck. She refuses even to leave that dilemma fully delegated to head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale) or his trusty staffers Madelyn Pugh (fellow A.D.’er Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy, a.k.a. Pete from The Office), who were paid to create yuks. In Sorkin’s rendition, her unspoken credo is “Never mind, I’ll do it myself!” as she retreats to her Sherlockian mind palace, which just looks like the show’s set, and keep brainstorming different rewrites and edits until she can imagine the funniest take and show those limited brains around her how it’s done.
And the one time Desi is allowed to pitch in when she’s at her most stymied — with that whole pesky “if you’re a Commie we will BURN YOU” thing — he whips up a perverse climax involving a very special personality who in real life was a documented big fan of the show, but it takes nerves as thick as a redwood to use that guy as a lifesaver in a 21st-century film. As opposed to falling back to Desi’s real-life defusing of the anti-Communism tension with his jokey defense of his wife (in its most common paraphrase), “The only thing Red about Lucy is her hair, end even that is not legitimate.”
Those multiple reworkings of the one episode, and one scene in particular involving a “blind” dinner date, bring yet another drawback to the fore, the same problem last seen in Sorkin’s one-season wonder, the NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In that drama about a sketch-comedy show, the dramatic moments were effective, but the sarcastic repartee behind the cameras was leagues funnier than the lead-footed “comedy” staged in front of them. Blame it on the pitfalls of watching the sausage-making live, or blame Sorkin for missing the meta-comedy mark once again. Add to that some exchanges in which characters inorganically argue by reading their own Wikipedia entries to each other, and one wishes Our Heroine had still been around to retreat to her mind palace on our behalf and dream up uncredited rewrites for this film, too.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, my wife and I can recommend visiting the Lucy Desi Museum in her birthplace of Jamestown, NY. For extra credit, you can also visit her final resting place down the street, as we did. If you’re a fan of Sorkin being Sorkin, Being the Ricardos has much of him in it, but at the expense of the legendary comedy duo in his rush to tell too many of their stories at the same time.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: In an odd choice of narrative structure, the film adds flash-forward framing sequences with documentary-style interviews — all fake, none real — with much older versions of the show’s three writers, each played by Ronny Cox (Deliverance, Total Recall), Linda Lavin (star of TV’s Alice), and John Rubinstein (Big-Bad middle management on TV’s Angel). The fictionalization was understandable to a certain point considering all three died years ago, but part of me wishes there’d been time to include any of their own backstory trivia, such as the part where Madelyn Pugh was from our very own Indianapolis and was classmates with hometown legend Kurt Vonnegut.
Network and/or cigarette execs with vested interests in the show include Clark Gregg, former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.; and Nelson Franklin, a.k.a. The Office‘s short-lived I.T. guy Nick.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Being the Ricardos end credits, but they do contain one last moment of absurdity as we see a songwriting credit for a two-line gag from one scene. Desi’s failed attempt to compose an ode to his wife is henceforth officially a song titled “Nothing Rhymes With Lucille”, which is also a lie. Offhand I’d suggest “bootheel”.