In this behind-the-scenes biopic, writer-director Aaron Sorkin follows a fraught week on the set of the iconic 1950s TV show I Love Lucy.

In this behind-the-scenes biopic, writer-director Aaron Sorkin follows a fraught week on the set of the iconic 1950s TV show I Love Lucy.

Like many of Sorkin’s projects, Being the Ricardos is a clever — and frequently interesting — exercise. Ultimately, though, it feels airless, mostly because of Sorkin’s habit of viewing his characters — even two as outsized as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem) — not as distinct human beings but as delivery systems for his stylized dialogue.

As Lucy and Desi work through an exhausting 36-episode television season, they are hit by accusations that Lucy is a communist, with influential columnist Walter Winchell insinuating that more than Lucy’s hair is red. In the stridently anti-communist era of the House Un-American Activities Committee, this political smear jeopardizes both their careers. Meanwhile, tabloid rumours that Desi is cheating threaten their marriage.

To top it off, Lucy is expecting a baby, which scandalizes all the suits from CBS and the show’s sponsor, the Philip Morris tobacco company, because while motherhood is all-American, somehow being visibly pregnant on television is not.

Sorkin is known for his disdain for our new-media universe and its divided, distracted audiences, so it’s not surprising that he’d get nostalgic for a time when 60 million Americans would all tune in to I Love Lucy at the same time.

<p>Glen Wilson / Amazon Studios</p><p>Javier Bardem captures Desi Arnaz’s charisma, but neither he nor Kidman are attempting faithful impersonations.</p>

Glen Wilson / Amazon Studios

Javier Bardem captures Desi Arnaz’s charisma, but neither he nor Kidman are attempting faithful impersonations.

While being a number one TV hit gives Lucy and Desi tremendous power, Sorkin suggests they are trapped by their success and, as a woman and a Cuban-American, tragically typecast.

This is a serious film about a comedy — which is probably just as well given how badly Sorkin handled the laughs in his short-lived TV series about a live comedy show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. There is quick banter — “I’ll be funny by Friday,” Lucy snaps at one difficult point in the rehearsal process — but the overall tone of Being the Ricardos is surprisingly sombre, even in a black-and-white recreation of the famous scene in which Lucy is stomping grapes.

Being the Ricardos is good-looking, with lots of swell period detail, but it has the slightly claustrophobic feel of an early television set-up.

<p>Glen Wilson / Amazon Studios</p><p>Nicole Kidman plays Lucille Ball’s hard-nosed businesswoman well, but it’s hard to see her as a pratfalling comedian.</p>

Glen Wilson / Amazon Studios

Nicole Kidman plays Lucille Ball’s hard-nosed businesswoman well, but it’s hard to see her as a pratfalling comedian.

The cast, which includes Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale and Jake Lacy in the writers’ room, and J.K. Simmons and Nina Ariande as William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played Fred and Ethel on the show, is uniformly good.

Bardem and Kidman don’t really resemble their real-life counterparts, but they aren’t going for impersonations. Bardem catches Arnaz’s charisma, while Kidman is competent, as always, but somewhat miscast. She’s very good at suggesting Ball’s role as a hard-headed businesswoman and perfectionist performer who will run a scene again and again to get it right, but it’s hard to see her as a madcap, rubber-faced funnywoman.

The drama is marked by the show’s production days — the table read, the camera blocking — all leading up to filming before a live audience. At the same time, we get flashbacks that tell us more about Lucy and Desi’s careers and their passionate, volatile, mutually supportive relationship. (“They’re either tearing each other’s heads off, or tearing each other’s clothes off,” remarks one of their colleagues.) There are also documentary-style interviews, set decades later, with older versions of some of Lucy and Desi’s colleagues.

Sorkin mostly avoids his trademark speechifying, but he does get out a message about the complexity of the creative process and the forces — economic, political and personal — that affect it. Sorkin also seems to be addressing the charge that he can’t write women, and he catches Lucy’s ambition, her intensity, her obsession with the smallest details of her craft — qualities that in 1950s America would seem admirable in a man but are viewed as unbecoming in a woman. “I deal with male egos for a living,” Lucy says at one point.

And while Sorkin is panstakingly recreating a past period, he’s also dealing with the very contemporary notion of “work-life balance.” As Lucy’s career is at its peak, her marriage seems to be falling apart, with Desi’s signature phrase, “Lucy, I’m home!” taking on poignant weight.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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<p>Glen Wilson / Amazon Studios</p><p>From left: Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda and Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos.</p>

Glen Wilson / Amazon Studios

From left: Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda and Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.