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‘Being the Ricardos’ Review: Nicole Kidman leads top ensemble in 'I Love Lucy' biopic

This Lucille Ball biopic works best when it leans to Aaron Sorkin’s strengths, but falters when it attempts to adhere to convention.

Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman in 'Being the Ricardos'.
(Image: © Amazon Studios)

Our Verdict

'Being the Ricardos' is as effective as it is because it has a killer ensemble and knows how to utilize them.

For

  • - This is a killer ensemble, across the board
  • - Nicole Kidman is earning that Best Actress consideration
  • - When Sorkin is in workplace drama mode, the screenplay shines

Against

  • - The flashback framing device is inconsistent and jarring
  • - Despite putting in a good performance, Javier Bardem is miscast

Say what you will of Aaron Sorkin — and I’ve had my share of criticisms toward the writer-director — but the man knows how to tell a compellingly story of a frenzied, high-pressure work environment (see The West Wing, The Newsroom). It’s when tapping into that West Wing insight that Being the Ricardos is at its most accomplished, highlighting the immense creative and business pressure placed on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to translate the mishaps of marriage into the iconic half-hour sitcom, I love Lucy, every single week. But when the film tries to dive into a more holistic approach to Lucille Ball’s life story, it comes up short.

Principally, the film highlights the production of I Love Lucy during a particularly hectic week, a fitting choice to encapsulate what made this show’s production so special and volatile. Lucille (Nicole Kidman) is beset by the looming threat of news that she was investigated by the FBI for supposed connections to communism. Desi (Javier Bardem, miscast but still turning in a laudable performance in spite of his clashing accents) struggles with feelings of upstaged inadequacy as Lucille attempts to get him sufficient recognition, even though Lucille’s creative drive is what makes the show great.

Elsewhere, the couple clashes with studio heads over Lucille’s pregnancy and the scandal of showing a pregnant woman on television. Co-star Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) struggles with the realization that she will always play second fiddle to Lucille, while her stage husband William Frawley (J.K. Simmons, quietly masterful as always) provides the perspective of an old, albeit drunk, pro. Meanwhile, the executive producer (Tony Hale) and writers room (Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy) struggle to incorporate Lucille’s constant tweaking into their developing scripts. 

This is all presented with the snappy freneticism we've come to expect from Sorkin at top form. Though thankfully he does veer away from his penchant for rapid-fire witticism that can be too clever for its own good, instead relying on a few good laugh lines to alleviate tension both in-universe and for the audience.

However, that magic becomes strangely interrupted when the film flippantly decides to break the conceits of its narrative structure to stage more conventional glimpses into Lucille’s rising stardom and conflicted marriage to Desi. These supposedly telling scenes are clumsily shoehorned in. 

The workplace storyline often comes to a screeching halt in these instances. Cutting away to talking head personifications of the writing staff (John Rubinstein, Ronny Cox and Linda Lavin) these act as faux-documentary context for flashback scenes that have little to do with the scenes they interrupt. It's very awkward and redundant  — demonstrations of Lucille Ball's drive, ethic, vulnerability and cunning that are already on full display in the main workplace drama.

Still, these sequences enable Kidman to explore Lucille’s character with the spotlight focused squarely on her. She does an excellent job of highlighting the physically comedic brilliance of the actress while emphasizing the sheer amount of raw intelligence and cunning she had as a self-made performer.

The Lucille Ball of Being the Ricardos is a shockingly lonely individual, torn between her professional momentum, her love for her husband, their occasionally rocky working relationship, the necessity of maintaining a unified front against creatively corruptive forces and the desire to simply feel at home anywhere that isn’t the fantasy of a soundstage dining room. If there’s one overriding reason to watch Being the Ricardos, it’s Kidman’s performance, for she will have you believing she is Lucille Ball, despite lacking much resemblance.

Being the Ricardos is only as good as its killer cast is and the movie knows how to utilize them — painting a portrait of the serious thought and internal politicking that underlaid the most successful sitcom of all time. It’s snappy without being cute, humorous without being too knowing about it, dramatic by showing the genuine motivations of its characters, rather than the contrived staging of a difficult diva. Kidman is the star of the show, but there's a strong foundation of performances that she reacts to and that react to her.

If only Being the Ricardos was more confident in its supporting cast, it might not need to oversell Kidman for a Best Actress nomination. Sadly the focus on chasing awards glory for its lead actress weakens an otherwise good film. 

Being the Ricardos opens in theaters on Dec. 10 and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 21.