Veteran listeners to On Set will know that I am on record as an Aaron Sorkin fan. It’s worth mentioning again because of how polarizing his scriptwriting continues to be in film circles. Opinions about his storytelling still tend to be rather binary, but love him or hate him, it’s impossible to argue against the existence of a formidable intellect in his dialogue. It’s this very intellect, I suspect, that still puts people off. Some folks don’t like to be beat over the head with somebody else’s performative smartness. I do like it. But since I’ve already spoken on a previous segment about why I admire Sorkin’s scripts, I’ll just move on to his latest prestige project.
Out now in theaters and available soon on Amazon Prime, “Being the Ricardos” transports us back to the early 1950s for a week in the life of the “I Love Lucy” show on CBS. From the Monday table read to the Friday taping, we are lovingly immersed in the sausage-making of vintage network television. Even if the story were no more than that, the incredible cast and Sorkin’s laser-focused banter could have burned through the two hours easily. But this film is no mere backstage pass. Hollywood blacklist-era politics and the too-often public dynamics of superstar marriage quickly elbow their way into the proceedings, giving Sorkin and his cast a lot to sort out.
Lucille Ball’s 1953 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Commission provides the central crisis for this fictionalized version of the “I Love Lucy” team and, while the station executives fret over the perception of her as Communist, she privately worries about Desi. The frantic conflation of issues on and off the set creates a perfect color palette for Sorkin’s brush, and he makes the most of it. The back and forth between the show’s cast, writers, and management is brisk, funny, and dangerously sharp. They really lean into it. And this is where the Sorkin-haters like to set up shop. It’s all just too clever, right? And much more about Sorkin himself than the subjects or themes of the film.
I see merit in this critique, I do, but only to a point. Sorkin’s writing can be exhausting, but for me, he’s exhausting in the same way all intense artistic experiences are. And as I’ve said before, the fact that people aren’t really this consistently brilliant and witty doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy imagining a world where they are. I find Sorkin’s dialogue challenging and aspirational and, well, fun. Especially in the hands of a good cast.
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star as the title couple and they succeed in depicting Lucy and Desi as the fearless, uncompromising leaders of their show and their studio. Their chemistry is never better than fine, even in the flashbacks, but maybe that’s the point, given their looming divorce. This equivocation is too kind perhaps, but I like Kidman and Bardem in this movie, even if I don’t necessarily buy them as a pair. What I do buy, at any price, are the supporting players. Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, Jake Lacey, and others all nail their ensemble parts, but my highest praise is reserved for Nina Arianda and J. K. Simmons. They are so good as Vivian Vance and William Frawley (that’s Fred and Ethel Mertz to you), I found myself wishing there had been a lot more of them by the end.
I probably lose ten friends every time I defend Aaron Sorkin. I don’t mind because, fussy and unrealistic as they may be, I believe his words light his characters from within. For this and other excellent reasons, “Being the Ricardos” is going to get some Oscar buzz and I will support it. This is one of my favorite movies of the year.