There’s always something distant about biopics like Being the Ricardos.
Obviously there is; it’s only a reconstruction, after all, and that sort of simulation is always going to position the audience at a certain level of remove. But there’s something about Being the Ricardos in particular that exacerbates that sense, giving the whole film a sort of detached feel throughout.
On one level, that’s surprising. The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz biopic is both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and arguably he’s spent his whole career building to something like this. He’s best known as creator of The West Wing, yes, or writer of films like The Social Network and The Trial of the Chicago 7, but he’s got a long background in comedy too.
His first television show was sitcom Sports Night, a workplace comedy about a sports news show, which he later followed with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a comedy-drama about the production of an SNL type show. Even then, The West Wing was always much funnier than it was ever politically incisive anyway – so on the face of it, Sorkin tackling this story doesn’t not make sense.
But in practice it still doesn’t quite cohere. One common problem with biopics is that they’re too reverent, too starstruck by their subject, but Being the Ricardos seems to suffer the opposite problem. Watching it, it’s hard to tell what Sorkin actually likes about I Love Lucy or its leads – he’s obviously impressed by Ball’s talent as a producer, but it’s less clear that that he actually enjoys the programme she made.
There’s a recurring thread running through Being the Ricardos where Lucy keeps returning to one particular scene, turning it over and over in her head, and insisting on practicing it again long past the point the rest of the cast are ready to move on.
Nicole Kidman (Nine Perfect Strangers) does a great job of selling Lucille Ball as someone who was really focused on the minutiae of production, never willing to accept anything less than perfect – her performance is strong across the board, particularly her imitation of Ball’s voice, but its always at its best when displaying that steely resolve. Lucille Ball wasn’t just a talented physical comedian, after all, but the first woman to run a major production company – Desilu Productions was behind both Mission: Impossible and Star Trek – and the film does a great job emphasising that side of her.
Right up until the end, that is, when it’s time to tape the actual episode. Lucy has agreed to do two takes, the better version we’ve seen her hone over the week, and the original scripted version. It quickly becomes apparent though that the “better version” was seemingly invented by Sorkin, existing solely to set up a brief emotional beat before Lucy perform the scripted version. It’s that version which was broadcast in real life, meaning it was the version that Ball worked on and approved herself.
Realising that gives the film an oddly critical air – almost as if Sorkin was using the characters to ventriloquise his own issues with one of the most popular and influential sitcoms ever. It’s not that a biopic taking a sceptical approach to its subject can’t work – it often does – but here it just feels like Sorkin pausing to score points. There are a lot of similar asides throughout, characters remarking on the poor quality of the material they’re given but praising each other for witty things they say in conversation (i.e. the lines Sorkin has written for them).
Being the Ricardos is still entertaining, certainly. Kidman and Javier Bardem are always very watchable, and the film is well-structured too, with Sorkin’s choice to fudge the real-life historical timeline paying dividends.
But equally, it’s hard to imagine that people will leave this biopic particularly moved to seek out more about Ball and Arnaz, or with much greater appreciation for their talents – you can’t help but wish it had a little less of its author and a little more of its subject.
Being the Ricardos is in UK cinemas from 10 December, and available on Amazon Prime from 21 December.
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