Being the Ricardos

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For all the negative online chatter about Nicole Kidman being cast as Lucille Ball, she proves herself to be a pretty good choice in Being the Ricardos. Lucy is one of those celebrities who was so distinct that no one could ever truly embody her essence. The beauty of Kidman's performance is that she doesn't try to emulate the mannerisms or to look too much like the television icon. She simply plays a woman who happens to be Lucille Ball. That's a smart choice, as it encourages us to forget the “How close does she get?” question and simply pay attention to the story. And what an engrossing story it is.

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin fudges a few facts and compresses the time frame of actual events, all in the name of telling the story of how a show-biz marriage struggles to stay intact during a period of intense pressure. Lucy has just been accused of being a Communist by a radio host. No substantive basis for this exists; it's essentially a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, no one knows how the accusation will affect the production of her show, given how nervous the network is about the forthcoming public response. This comes on the heels of tabloid reports that husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is cheating on her.

As Desi works on damage control, the star keeps working on I Love Lucy. That includes being laser-focused on every little detail of the script, as well as trying to coax a higher level of physical comedy out of perpetually feuding co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda). Clashes with the current episode's director, who Lucy feels is a hack, add to the tension.

Being the Ricardos weaves all these things together to illustrate the marital dynamic between Lucy and Desi, which is beyond complicated. (There are also flashbacks showing how they got together.) She's a major star whose attention to detail is generally viewed as nit-picking by everyone except for him. He has his own dreams of stardom that have been perpetually overshadowed by her fame. Some of that imbalance is rectified by the show. Lucy relies on his opinion for important creative decisions, yet his role in helping to shape I Love Lucy is often minimized by the rest of the creative team. The film dramatizes how the two become a force when they work together – as in demanding Lucy's real-life pregnancy be incorporated into the show, against the wishes of network executives – and how fragile it becomes as the cheating rumors grow.

Kidman does an outstanding job conveying Lucy's power. Here's a woman who realizes that her popularity affords her leverage. She has no hesitation about pulling rank when the need arises. Also effective is how the actress infers that Lucy's constant striving to perfect her comedy was a key factor in her success. To make it as a comedy star in the '50s, she had to be funnier than all the male comics out there. Kidman's performance is multi-layered and magnificent, suggesting that moments of personal insecurity help fuel that drive.

Javier Bardem is equally good, demonstrating that Desi does indeed love Lucy, even as he struggles with living in her shadow. In his hands, you can feel Desi yearning for recognition, for some acknowledgement that, in running their company, he is as responsible for the show's success as she is. Simmons and Arianda offer outstanding supporting work. The former is hilarious as the blustery Frawley, the latter touching in her portrayal of Vance's unhappiness over having her appearance used as the butt of jokes.

Aaron Sorkin is, of course, a master of dialogue, and that's a key component to Being the Ricardos. His sharp screenplay addresses many topics – the accusation against Lucy, the marriage stuff, the workplace conflicts – with intelligence and insight. He weaves them together to offer perspective on what Lucy and Desi's marriage might have been like. Even better, he finds compelling things that are unique to their Hollywood status, while simultaneously illustrating how they face the sort of problems many couples encounter.

Being the Ricardos is a terrific (if perhaps slightly speculative) exploration of one of the most high-profile celebrity marriages ever. It sucks you in, whether you're an I Love Lucy fan or not.

out of four

Being the Ricardos is rated R for language. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.