The prolific and uniquely talented writer-director-producer Aaron Sorkin is fascinated with the inner workings of television, as evidenced by the TV series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, “Sports Night” and “The Newsroom” and even a stage production of his unproduced screenplay “The Farnsworth Invention,” which was about one Philo Farnsworth, an early pioneer who developed the technology that allowed for some of the very first TV transmissions.
Whereas as the aforementioned dramatic series were inspired by real-life networks and shows but were purely fictional, Sorkin employs his trademark stylized and “Sorkin-ized” approach to the real-life foundation of material in “Being the Ricardos,” a whip-smart, cheeky, sepia-toned re-imagination of the story of Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, whose groundbreaking 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy” averaged an astounding 60 million viewers a week and to this day is hailed as one of the best and most influential TV comedies of all time.
There was a lot of clucking on Twitter about the casting of Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman in the lead roles, but Bardem does a solid job of capturing Arnaz’ charismatic stage presence, business acumen and duplicitous ways with the ladies, while Kidman is outstanding at reminding us there were two Lucys: the comedic genius who knew how to get maximum laughs out the simplest line of dialogue or some perfectly crafted bit of physical shtick, and the hard-nosed, independent-minded woman who took guff from no one and would fight tooth and nail for what she believed in. It’s not an impersonation so much as it is a fully realized characterization.
Flashbacks take us back to the 1940s, when Lucy was a secondary player under contract at RKO studios and could never quite break through to the A-list. (The film insinuates the male hierarchy felt Ball was talented but didn’t have the movie-star looks to become a leading lady.) Lucy meets Desi on the set of a lousy musical called “Too Many Girls,” sees through his playboy persona and believes there’s something deeper there — and off they go on a whirlwind romance in which they always seemed to be “tearing each other’s head’s off or tearing each other’s clothes off,” as a writer on “I Love Lucy” recalls. The back-story sequences are well-filmed and add context to the story, but “Being the Ricardos” is much more compelling in the sequences set during a week that starts off with a tense table read, as a contentious Lucille butts heads with her head writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and staff writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy).
In that same week, a gossip rag does a cover story about Desi’s alleged philandering, and although Desi is a master at explaining away everything, Lucille knows the truth deep down. In any case, confronting Desi will have to wait until later in the week, because there’s a much bigger scandal looming after a gossip columnist drops a bombshell implying Lucille is a Communist, much to the horror of the CBS network execs and the even more powerful board members of Phillip Morris, the sponsor of the show. Oh, and let’s not forget Lucille has just learned she’s having a baby — and rather than engage in the clichéd moves of having Lucy hide behind laundry baskets and furniture through the duration of the pregnancy, Lucille is demanding rewrites for the rest of the season that will make her pregnancy Lucy’s pregnancy.
In classic Sorkin fashion, “Being the Ricardos” makes room for some juicy supporting player opportunities, and J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda are sensational as William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played the Ricardos’ landlords and best friends Fred and Ethel Mertz. As played by Simmons, the old-school vaudevillian actor Frawley was even crabbier and more emotionally constipated than his onscreen counterpart — but in a key scene late in the story, when the walls are closing in on Lucille, we see the human side of Frawley, and we also come to appreciate how seriously he takes his craft, despite the drinking and the cynical off-camera wisecracks. Arianda brings great humanity to the character of Vivian Vance, who was playing the least interesting of the four main characters on the show and found herself torn between loyalty to Lucille and the realization Lucille didn’t want her to lose too much weight or become too attractive, lest she steal some of the spotlight.
We also get small but valuable contributions from John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox, who play older versions of Oppenheimer, Pugh and Carroll, respectively, giving talking-head interviews as they share recollections of that one crazy week. It should hardly come as a surprise that the true-story timeline doesn’t match the dramatic license on display in “Being the Ricardos” — that the reveal of Lucille’s pregnancy and the twin tabloid controversies and Lucille confronting Desi about his philandering and the fights over this particular script didn’t all transpire over the course of five days but were in fact spaced out over a few years. There’s life, there’s TV — and there are movies about TV, and though “Being the Ricardos” is a work of drama, it has the essence of truth.