On the surface, it’s surprising that writer-director Aaron Sorkin chose as his latest project a film about Lucille Ball. After all, “I Love Lucy” has been off the air for over six decades, and while its legend lives on, few viewers under the age of 60 have much of a relationship to it. But Sorkin has ideas. “Being the Ricardos” may be perceived as an historical drama blended with a biopic, but just as he did in last year’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Sorkin is speaking directly to our current moment.
It’s a film about being a woman in Hollywood, then and now. Chronicling a week in the life of Ball (Nicole Kidman), her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and their show, it weaves several interlocking threads together. First, Ball has just been wrongly accused of being a Communist on a local TV station, which puts the show’s stars, crew, and sponsors all on edge. In response, Ball works harder than ever to make this week’s show their best yet, as it could be their last. She rewrites the script and improvises heavily in rehearsal, stepping on the toes of all the other creatives in the room.
Meanwhile, she and Desi break the news to the show’s producers that Ball is pregnant. The fallout is fascinating: The actors want to incorporate her pregnancy into the show, but the sponsors – represented by a cadre of interchangeable white men in black suits – won’t hear of it. They say America isn’t ready to talk with their kids about where babies come from. Lucy and Desi disagree. As Lucy wages these battles, Sorkin’s theme emerges brightly: Show business is a world where women must fight to have their authentic voice heard, even when they clearly have the best ideas and the most talent.
It’s something of an about-face for a filmmaker who has long been accused of having a blind spot for well-written female characters, but Sorkin mostly does Ball justice. With precise editing, Sorkin weaves in flashbacks from Ball’s early days of promise in films, her bumpy path to TV stardom, her courtship with Arnaz, and even recreated clips from the show, painting a thorough portrait of Ball’s life. It’s a refreshing approach to the awards-season biopic, which typically moves chronologically through its subject’s life, and it pays dividends, allowing Sorkin to pick his points of emphasis with greater precision.
In another fundamental way, however, the film succumbs to conventions of the Oscar-bait docudrama and suffers mightily for it. I’m talking about Nicole Kidman’s face, which is slathered in make-up that might win awards but which prevents her from generating the emotions of a real, live human. It’s a trick used by Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Charlize Theron in “Bombshell,” but here the impact is even more devastating. While Ball had one of the most expressive faces in television, Kidman can’t even raise an eyebrow or crinkle her nose. A scene in which the actress is dropped from her film contract for being too old has no resonance. Kidman not only doesn’t look old. She doesn’t look human.
In this offering to the awards season gods, “Being the Ricardos” discards its audience, robbing us of a chance to more closely identify with its heroine. It overshadows all that shines in the performances. Although Kidman’s face is inexpressive, her imitation of Ball’s squeaky onscreen timbre is perfect. Bardem brings a mountain of charisma to his portrayal of Arnaz, while hinting at the darkness his charm is designed to obscure. A gallery of excellent character actors round out the cast, with J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, as the actors who played Fred and Ethel, bringing an understated humanity that deepens the film’s sparkling surfaces.
With so much else to recommend it, the concealment of its most principal face shouldn’t sink “Being the Ricardos,” but this fundamental flaw runs so counter to the film’s themes that it disrupts the momentum Sorkin is working so hard to generate. In a film that seeks to lift the veil on one of Hollywood’s greatest women, she somehow ends up being hidden all over again.
“Being the Ricardos” will be released in select theaters on December 10. It will stream on Amazon Prime on December 21.