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It was only a matter of time before writer-director Aaron Sorkin made a movie about Lucille Ball. Sorkin loves comedy, as fans of his aborted TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip know. He loves characters who are the smartest people in the room, as Ball, who essentially invented the multi-camera sitcom, always was. He is also fascinated by behind-the-scenes dealings of very public people, be they public officials (The West Wing), TV anchors (The Newsroom), or the founders of Facebook (The Social Network). What he’s not is an historian. Being the Ricardos may be categorized as a biopic of a gone-but-not-forgotten icon, but just as he did in last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin is using the past to address the concerns of the present.
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, Sorkin weaves several interlocking threads together. First, Ball has just been publicly accused of being a Communist on a local TV station, which puts the show’s stars, crew, and sponsors all on edge. In the McCarthy era, even an unfounded accusation could torpedo a career. Ball responds with her art, working harder than ever to make that week’s show their best yet. 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 their 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 have to fight to have their authentic voice heard, even when they have the best ideas and the biggest talent.
It’s something of a long-awaited about-face for a filmmaker who has long been accused of having a blind spot for well-written women 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 Arnez, 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 plods chronologically through its subject’s life, and it pays dividends, allowing Sorkin to pick his points of emphasis with greater precision. At every turn, Ball’s story further reveals the indignities of being—as she is reductively viewed by others – female and famous.
In another fundamental way, however, Being the Ricardos succumbs to conventions of the Oscar-bait drama and suffers for it. I’m talking about the paralyzing make-up slathered onto Kidman’s face, which may win awards but prevents the actor from generating real, human emotions. It’s a cheap 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 barely raise an eyebrow or crinkle her nose. A scene in which the actress is dropped from her film contract for being too old, intended as a devastating rejection, doesn’t land: Kidman doesn’t look old, but she also doesn’t look entirely human.
In this offering to the awards season gods, Being the Ricardos betrays itself and its audience, robbing us of a chance to more closely identify with its heroine and overshadows all else that shines in the performances. Although Kidman’s face is inexpressive, her imitation of Ball’s squeaky onscreen timbre is perfect, and she neatly embodies the weary frustration borne from a lifetime of satisfying the fragile male ego. Speaking of which: Bardem brings a mountain of charisma to his portrayal of Arnaz, while hinting at the insecurity 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 neighbors Fred and Ethel, bringing a grounded humanity that counteracts the film’s overreliance on impersonation.
With so much else to recommend it, the forced limitations of Kidman’s facial expressions shouldn’t sink Being the Ricardos, but it does. 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 hits select theaters on Dec. 10 and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime on Dec. 21.