BEING THE RICARDOS Twists Reality in Search of Truth

What is the purpose of a biopic? Different writers and directors have approached the subgenre with different purposes, and they often function as a means for actors to flex their creative muscles and recreate a known figure in history, allowing the performer to disappear within a role and potentially generate some awards buzz for themselves while doing so. Some directors jump at the chance to stage famous or significant moments in history, to provide a veneer of authenticity within the framework of creative license. Perhaps they use the biopic to highlight lesser known historical figures, shedding light on inspiring stories with the premise that they are based on real life.

And then there is the specific micro-genre of the Aaron Sorkin biopic. Since 2007, he’s written seven (including the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network, and three additional nominations) and directed three. But his approach to the art of the historical drama is fairly unique to him. Sorkin has always prized ecstatic emotional truth over diligent historical accuracy. The Social Network, for all its propulsive verve and intoxicating dialogue, centered on a fictionalized encounter with a character’s fictionalized girlfriend. Sorkin is rarely concerned with presenting things how they actually happened, instead more concerned with how he feels they should have happened, how we imagine these totemic moments in our mind. Sorkin biopics are reality as filtered through the heightened rhythms of a classic Sorkin script.

In some ways, Sorkin’s latest entry, Being the Ricardos, is his most openly dismissive of the concept of representing true events in any way that resembles how they occurred. Here, he’s not just depicting events the audience is familiar with, but individuals whose chemistry is intimately familiar as well. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s depictions of the Ricardos are among the most iconic public personas in the history of television, if not the whole of American popular culture. I Love Lucy is undeniably one of the most influential pieces of television in the history of the medium, and is still transcendentally funny today. Thus Sorkin sets up for himself a potential minefield of an emotional uncanny valley: If he gets the characters, the show, the people wrong, the audience could very well reject the film. His gamble, then, is to play fast and loose with the facts, pulling you in with richly defined characters that mask the fact that things seem “off.” And for the most part, Sorkin and his stacked cast succeed in this effort.

Structurally, the film is set against three interrelated stories. The main spine depicts a fictionalized week in the production of I Love Lucy, specifically the rehearsal and shooting of the episode “Fred and Ethel Fight.” While preparing for the show, however, three things occur: Ball deals with the fallout of news about her confidential appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee breaking; she suspects Arnaz of being unfaithful; and she has to inform her sponsors about her pregnancy. The way these three major events intersect and respond to each other is the primary thrust of the drama, and gives the film the multi-plot structure of a Sorkin television script. It creates the same frantic, propulsive energy of the best episodes of The West Wing, and it’s almost hard to believe so much action could be crammed into one week.

And of course, it wasn’t. The episode that the film is based around is real, as are the circumstances around Lucy’s appearance before HUAC and her famous battle to appear pregnant on national television. But they didn’t all break at the same time. It goes down to basic details: The movie depicts “Fred and Ethel Fight” as the fourth episode of the second season, when in reality it is the 22nd of the first. Ultimately, these things don’t matter for the story Sorkin is telling and his interest in depicting the pressure of making a show like I Love Lucy. By only giving himself approximately two hours to depict the whole significance and magic of I Love Lucy, he has to ratchet up the heat and hit as many of these points as he can. Thus you can forgive him for cramming so much in, even if it shatters the verisimilitude of the film.

Which is what makes the second track Sorkin lays all the more perplexing. Throughout the film — in fact from the very first scene — the movie keeps cutting back to short interview segments with elderly versions of the writing staff of the show, discussing the events of that week in retrospective fashion. But like everything else, this aspect is an artifice. These aren’t actual interviews with the writing staff (all of whom have passed), but rather actors playing fictional older versions of the writers. What these segments offer functionally never fully reveals itself.

The third track is the most traditional of Sorkin’s biopic tricks: Depicting significant moments in Desi and Lucy’s life, including the pair falling in love and struggling to figure out their domestic life. These moments are where co-leads Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem have the most spark. Seeing the pair dance and squabble creates a sense of two people who are both falling in love, but will ultimately prove to be volatile substances when combined. Kidman and Bardem’s chemistry is evident from the first moment they appear on screen together; they are a dynamic couple, and one that pulls viewers into their deep connection.

Which is good, because they have a lot of ground to make up for. The biggest hurdle that Sorkin sets for himself is rooted in the very casting of Kidman and Bardem. Both actors, especially Bardem, put in excellent performances that allow the characters to have depth and pathos, but there is constantly a physical barrier as we realize that something isn’t quite right — again, that uncanny valley. They just don’t have the look. But what they lack in physical resemblance, they make up for in thrilling physicality. Sorkin’s trademark strength has always been his relentless approach to dialogue, but he also gets two performances out of his lead actors that take full use of physical prowess.

Throughout the film, Kidman’s Ball reminds everyone she is primarily a physical comedian; Kidman’s own comfort and ability to use her whole frame to communicate Ball’s interiority allows her strengths as a performer to dominate most scenes she appears in. As she gestures and dominates a table read, or submits her whole body to a comedic performance, Kidman nails Ball’s ability to portray almost superhuman confidence and bravado, while shielding her own deeply-seeded anxiety about her carefully constructed stardom being shattered at any moment. Bardem similarly communicates so much with his physical performance, shifting between looseness and stiffness, communicating Arnaz’s complex journey and his position to his superstar wife. Bardem has the fluidity to rumba, the hulking mass to hunch over with the weight of his post-war trauma, and the coiled repression to deny his own fallibility.

The only cast member who truly resembles their real world counterpart is J.K. Simmons as craggy alcoholic William Frawley. His ability to perfectly emulate the facial contortions and comedic broadness of Frawley as Lucy character Fred Mertz, as well as his infamous world-weariness when off screen, creates a fully realized member of the ensemble. Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance is regularly on the periphery, depicting her famed tension with acting partner Frawley with appropriate prickliness but never fully settling on an especially arresting performance. Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy as the squabbling writers room are likeable and get plenty of Sorkin patter to get their mouths around and tear through. Sorkin is also able to get in his usual cavalcade of dependable and perfectly pitched character actor performances to fill out the cast.

The weight of the film is on Kidman and Bardem’s shoulders, and both prove themselves up to the task. They make the wise decision to not precisely attempt to do Ball and Arnaz impressions, preferring to find their own voices and owning them. The electricity and heat between the two sells their relationship and connection as something that is both alchemic and extremely fragile. Even if you don’t ever convince your mind to accept them as Lucille and Desi, let alone as Lucy and Ricky, you do buy them as the tragic-romantic pair at the heart of this phenomenon.

During flashback sequences, we learn that the whole thrust of why I Love Lucy existed in the form we know is a deeply personal story. When CBS is courting Ball to develop a sitcom for their television wing, she hardlines on Arnaz playing her husband on TV. Why? Because it would allow them to work together, and see each other, and intimately be part of each other’s lives. In short, the domestic bliss that was depicted on I Love Lucy was itself a fabrication, one that was meant to be a safe haven for Ball to create a space for a happy marriage.

The film’s audience, of course, knows this is doomed, but in the process of this misguided marital strategy, entertainment magic became quite possibly the greatest TV show of all time. The fabricated reality as a means of creating actual reality, the line between Lucille and Desi versus Lucy and Ricky, and how Sorkin’s eye reimagines both creates a complex but rewarding depth to consider. It is easy to see why Sorkin, also a famously meticulous, obsessive, and prickly creator, sees a kindred spirit in Ball. As a love letter to her spirit, life, and love, Being the Ricardos rings true — if not exactly accurate.

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