If you’ve been enjoying this season of TCM’s “The Plot Thickens” podcast as much as I have, you already know that the tempestuous marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz offers more than enough material for a wild and wooly motion picture about the power dynamics between lovers and business partners in the process of revolutionizing television. “Being the Ricardos” is not that movie. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s bafflingly bad biopic is a cranky harangue of straw man arguments and fabricated nonsense, cramming years of incidents on the set of “I Love Lucy” into a single hectic work week, fronted by the wildly miscast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem.
Set in 1953, the movie is motored by gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s revelation that America’s sweetheart Lucille Ball is being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and we spend a very nervous few days with Lucy as she waits to see if she’ll be blacklisted. Meanwhile, Confidential magazine has just published a story about her husband Desi’s infidelities, and the couple also has to break it to the network that she’s pregnant again. (This was verboten in the early days of television, with squeamish sponsors keeping the Ricardos confined to twin beds.) Oh, and they’ve got a show to do, too. Lucy considers this week’s script sub-par, and she’s not afraid to let the long-suffering writers know her feelings.
I’ll confess to sometimes having a soft spot for Sorkin’s windbag histrionics, with last year’s factually challenged and shamelessly entertaining “The Trial of the Chicago 7” being an especially guilty pleasure. But where that picture played to Sorkin’s strengths (blowhard monologues by smarty-pants idealists), “Being the Ricardos” plays like an index of his weaknesses, full of bizarre anachronisms and catty female characters learning important lessons from oracular men of wisdom. All biopics are expected to fudge some facts, but are we really to believe that Lucy received a lecture about Latino masculinity from her tipsy co-star William Frawley? Sorkin has always had difficulty writing for women, to say the least, and the ostensibly feminist “Being the Ricardos” puts an industry pioneer in the position of spending most of the movie apologizing for herself, waiting for her career to be rescued not just by her philandering husband but also — in Sorkin’s most galling invention — by J. Edgar Hoover. (Making a Red Scare docudrama in which Hoover emerges as a hero is certainly a choice.)
The film cuts narrative corners using a mock-documentary format, with distractingly recognizable actors like Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox posing as the long-dead, real-life “I Love Lucy” writers, conveniently dumping exposition into the lens, describing scenes that Sorkin apparently didn’t feel like dramatizing. It’s a strange device, but not as strange as his idea to shoot his stars’ introductory scene from the waist down, hiding Kidman and Bardem’s faces for the first portion of the picture like they’re the shark in “Jaws” or something.
It’s a wretched looking film, with a nicotine-stain color palette on smeary, underlit video. (I wasn’t sure if this was the most poorly photographed movie of the year or it was just that I saw it at the Kendall Square Cinema. A peek at a digital screener revealed that the answer is all of the above.) The lazy aesthetic is especially insulting because “I Love Lucy” was famously shot on 35mm film by legendary “Dracula” cinematographer Karl Freund, who invented the style of sitcom lighting still in use today, and perfected a three-camera setup that allowed the show to be filmed in front of a live studio audience.
You won’t get any of this from Sorkin’s movie, and he’s said in interviews that he doesn’t find “I Love Lucy” particularly funny. (Why make a movie about a show you don’t like?) “Being the Ricardos” is shockingly dismissive of its subject’s genius, allowing Kidman to fumble her way through some brief, half-hearted slapstick while the movie is more interested in another one of Sorkin’s beloved toxic workplaces, where everybody walks-and-talks with their chests puffed out, sputtering profanities and constantly trying to one-up each other. Alia Shawkat plays show writer Madelyn Pugh, one of those uppity young women's-libbers who needs to be taken down a few notches by the old guard. Her dialogue is all jarringly contemporary concerns, so much that the character should probably be credited as “Twitter.” At one point somebody actually says, “stop gaslighting me,” a term nobody used in 1953. (They didn’t even use it in 2019.) The mirthless movie has most in common with Sorkin’s insufferable, short-lived TV series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” in which humorless comedy writers carried on as if the fate of the nation depended on their terrible sketches.
I saw “Being the Ricardos” weeks ago and I’m still having a hard time understanding why this picture was made or what it’s supposed to be about. I’d say Sorkin’s got some ‘splainin’ to do, but the film is inexplicable.
“Being the Ricardos” opens in theaters on Friday, Dec. 10, and starts streaming on Amazon Prime Tuesday, Dec. 21.