With “I Love Lucy,” the first transcendent sitcom, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz invented what television could do — combine the best elements of comedy, episodic radio, live theater, film production and a new medium’s immediacy into a can’t-miss date every week with a gifted power couple.
Except for radio, Aaron Sorkin has worked in all those formats, too, but you’d never know he’d been proficient in any of them from the dreary, strained, and clunky ode to the Ball-Arnaz partnership he’s written and directed, “Being the Ricardos.”
A Wikipedia entry fed into what can only be called The Sorkinator, but missing the wit module, “Being the Ricardos” is cultural-television-marital history flattened into a babbling stream of airless, horribly shot scenes that never come close to the glorious timing of a single comic exchange on “I Love Lucy.” It’s almost beside the point whether Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are well-cast or not as Ball and Arnaz (they are and they aren’t), because Sorkin is less interested in them as characters, anyway, and more as mouthpieces for their backgrounds and legacies. (“I am the biggest asset in the portfolio of the Columbia Broadcasting System!” is a descriptor for a parlor game, not a line of dialogue anyone should have to make believable.)
As if confused between what makes a movie and what should be a season’s worth of storylines, Sorkin takes the timeline of a production week in the second season of the show and starts stuffing exposition and workplace conflict into it as if he thought foie gras would be the result: Flashbacks, mock-documentary flash-forwards, bickering, bonking, singing, dancing, Ball’s controversial pregnancy and authorial control, Arnaz’s infidelity and ingenuity, her near-blacklisting, his second-banana hang-ups, their underappreciated business acumen, how comedy works, how television works, how product sponsorship works, how Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) hated looking frumpy to play Ethel Mertz whereas her TV husband William Frawley (JK Simmons) happily exuded frump, why showrunner Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) felt threatened, why writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) believed Lucy Ricardo was being infantilized … all these are covered. Not dramatized. Covered.
Lost in Sorkin’s need to be an encyclopedic dramaturg is a cohesive, engaging portrait of what started as a hot romance between undervalued talents that morphed into a successful partnership role-playing a happy marriage. That movie sounds great, and Sorkin understands that trajectory, but his compulsion is telling you his intentions — like in the fake “this is what happened” interviews — rather than show us with compelling scene dynamics, or to let them arise naturally in a honed narrative.
He even devises a wonderfully bittersweet metaphor in the Ricardos’ soundstage “home” as the only place where Ball and Arnaz truly got each other; at work, they had something they knew how to protect in each other. But the moments that pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses as a couple are nearly always subsumed by the A-student screenwriting and Sorkin’s pedestrian directing.
This is Sorkin’s third stab at directing, after the perfectly OK “Molly’s Game” and the imperfectly OK “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and while he’s shown no flair for the job, this is his worst outing yet when it comes to the rudiments. The pacing is forced; Sorkin uncannily undercuts his own precious words with obvious music cues, choppy editing, and dull blocking of actors. Then there’s the pall of Jeff Cronenworth’s desaturated images, nicotine-stained and interchangeable — the soundstage looks like the nightclub looks like the Ball-Arnaz home.
Scenes are so often backlit or underlit that actors’ features, and any potential nuance in Jon Hutman’s sets or costumer Sarah Lyall’s clothing, just disappear into the brownness. One longs for the flat lighting for multiple 35mm cameras that “Metropolis” cinematographer Karl Freund pioneered for “I Love Lucy,” a show on which you could see people’s faces.
The shame is that it’s not a problem to overlook where Kidman and Bardem don’t resemble who they’re playing, because they’re good enough actors to know that imitation isn’t performance. But while Bardem maintains a generally consistent, animated Desi Arnaz, Sorkin does Kidman no favors in filming her to come across like different Lucys depending on the scene (serious, vulnerable, jealous, sexy, snarky) rather than one steely/rubbery beauty across different years and situations. It also doesn’t help that her voice isn’t always straight either — the trademark cigarette rasp is there, and perfect, in some scenes, absent in others.
The rest of the “Being the Ricardos” cast do what’s required, with Simmons perhaps the most effortlessly entertaining of the bunch — even if his Frawley is more sitcom-y than Fred Mertz was — and Shawkat’s Madelyn Pugh a missed opportunity to be more than a biting jokester. When she and Ball get into it over Pugh’s worries that Lucy Ricardo is a step backward for funnywomen, it’s the kind of exchange you’d think you want, except that it patronizingly explains comedy, doesn’t sound natural, and happens in front of a blown-out window so the actors’ features are obliterated. That’s being “Being the Ricardos.”
“Being the Ricardos” opens in U.S. theaters Friday and streams on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 21.