by Kayla McCulloch on Dec 10, 2021

Incomparable screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s recent foray into the director’s chair has been something of a mixed bag. Molly’s Game (2017), his directorial debut, combines an unparalleled Sorkin script with what is undoubtedly some of the weakest direction in anything with his name attached. After penning works for the likes of Rob Reiner, Mike Nichols, David Fincher, and Danny Boyle, Sorkin’s first time behind the camera lacks the visual vigor his own words need to truly leap off the page as they do in, say, A Few Good Men (1992), The Social Network (2010), or Moneyball (2011). Sorkin’s second go-round as both writer and director for The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) proffered a similar brand of aesthetic blandness, little more than a camera mindlessly pointed at actors reading lines, where proper blocking and appropriate coverage was needed.

Being the Ricardos, Sorkin’s third stab at directing and his quickest turnaround between films since the one-two punch of The Social Network and Moneyball, shows improvement in some areas and inertness in others. The story — framed by a bizarre mockumentary with talking-head-style interviews with future versions of characters the audience has yet to meet — follows a single week in the lives of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and the I Love Lucy (1951-57) cast and crew as a pair of scandals hang like a dark cloud over both the production and the iconic pair’s marriage: the uncovering of Ball’s involvement with the Communist Party decades earlier and the revelation of Arnaz’s alleged affair from the night before.

As if this weren’t enough drama to sustain a couple of hours, there are a handful of other transgressions that get thrown into the mix over the course of the week: Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) can’t get along. Vance is growing tired of being a punchline as she struggles to lose weight. Frawley’s patriotism is on the brink of boiling over in the era of McCarthyism. Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) fights for a say in a writer’s room of men. CBS executives face a tough decision over the show’s future not only with the leak of Ball’s political affiliation and Arnaz’s philandering but also with the duo’s newly revealed pregnancy (after all, no sitcom had ever so much as discussed pregnancy, let alone showed it). There’s enough material here to fill a miniseries’ worth of pages, but it’s crammed into a scant-seeming 125 minutes. It’s pure mayhem.

There are essentially three major plot devices being used simultaneously in Being the Ricardos: There’s the recurring mockumentary interludes and the week-in-the-life structure mentioned above, and there is also a series of prolonged flashbacks sprinkled throughout that shade in areas of Ball and Arnaz’s personal lives. One or two of these would have worked fine together, but all three unleashed on an unsuspecting viewer at once results in an absolutely chaotic pacing that one never totally acclimates to. It’s unfortunate, too, because the day-by-day thing is strong enough to stand on its own. Given Sorkin’s time as showrunner of four successful TV shows, his behind-the-scenes knowledge as applied to Ball and Arnaz and crew is actually quite serviceable. It is, without question, the most compelling aspect of Being the Ricardos — everything else, from the fake documentary to the frivolous leaps back in time, is merely a hindrance.

And yet, the script is nevertheless classic Sorkin, both for better and for worse. Characters act less like humans and more as mouthpieces for Sorkin’s opinions on the subject matter at hand. There are far too many ideas to count, though some of the most prevalent talking points include Sorkin’s thoughts on showrunning and who really deserves creative control of a television show, on left- and right-wing politics and their place in showbusiness, and the fine line a healthy work-life balance must walk. Witty quips and finely tuned back-and-forths take precedence over any real emotional depth or attempts at nuanced portrayals, with Sorkin banking on the familiarity of the characters to do all the heavy lifting in this department. Yet, flaws and all, there’s still this inescapable, indescribable energy to Sorkin’s screenplays that acts as a gravitational pull. One may not be thoroughly convinced or aesthetically pleased, but it sure is hard to look away from it — especially with a film as peculiar as this.

Beyond all this, the true elephant in the room is Being the Ricardos’ casting of Kidman and Bardem as the film’s central pairing. During the early stages of production, a faction of I Love Lucy fans hoped for sitcom actress and Ball doppelgänger Debra Messing instead of Kidman for the part of Lucille, while Bardem — a Spanish actor — was immediately labeled unfit to portray the part of Arnaz, a Cuban American. Although there’s no doubt Kidman is a far superior talent and acting in a biopic is about more than just looking like the real-life person being portrayed, the Bardem issue is a legitimate critique when high-profile Cuban American actors like Oscar Isaac exist. However, rather than hashing out a list of dream castings or debating who could have played which part better, perhaps it’s worth conceding that Being the Ricardos was ill-fated and -conceived from the start. It might have been better off remaining in development purgatory where it resided from 2015 to 2020.

The current moment is undoubtedly one of the strangest eras of feature filmmaking on record, and Being the Ricardos is a stark manifestation of this. The major studio players of awards seasons past would prefer to spend their money on blockbuster tentpoles devoid of any substance or flair, leaving their once-beloved Oscar contenders behind to be picked up by streaming services with billions of dollars of other people’s money to spend on equally soulless content destined to reside in people’s watchlists in perpetuity. For whatever good there is to be found in Being the Ricardos — namely a strong supporting cast and a spattering of agreeable Sorkinisms — there are many more moments of genuine head-scratching abnormality. It’s enough to trigger a sort of out-of-body viewing experience. It feels like it was made by an Aaron Sorkin AI, an unsettling pantomime of how a streamer thinks an awards-season contender from the renowned scriptwriter should look, feel, and behave.

Rating: C+

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