One of America’s most beloved sitcoms of all time, TV’s I LOVE LUCY has been in continuous syndication both in the US and in dozens of markets around the world for close to 60 years. The show’s run, from 1951 to 1957, was a juggernaut for CBS back in the day with upwards of 60 million households tuning in every Monday night to watch what kooky predicament Lucy, with Ethel often reluctantly at her side, would get up to. The episode where Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky was watched by over 70 percent of American households that had a TV. So popular was I LOVE LUCY that it outdrew the TV audiences for US Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration in January 1953 and Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation five months later.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the show’s stars and producers, and that’s what the movie BEING THE RICARDOS delves into. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin (THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7) takes a few pivotal incidents that took place over a number of months and condenses their timeline down to one week. As Ball (Nicole Kidman, BOMBSHELL; AQUAMAN; THE BEGUILED), Arnaz (Javier Bardem, DUNE; EVERYBODY KNOWS), Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda, RICHARD JEWELL; FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS) and William Frawley (J. D. Simmons, the SPIDER-MAN trilogy, PALM SPRINGS; WHIPLASH) begin a new week with a new script (“Fred and Ethel Fight”), the newspapers have printed some news that could derail Ball’s career and kill off the show. Famed columnist Walter Winchell reported that Ball had apparently signed a document about 20 years earlier stating that she was a member of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported that Arnaz was unfaithful to Ball and even published a photo as evidence. Ball, meanwhile, had her own bombshell news to share that week. She was pregnant with Desi Jr. and she wanted her pregnancy to be included in the show’s storyline. Back then, TV characters didn’t get pregnant, and Lucy and Ricky even slept in separate twin beds. Both CBS and the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris, were against Lucy having a baby but Ball was adamant. It was going to happen otherwise there would be no more I LOVE LUCY.
In typical Sorkin fashion, BEING THE RICARDOS has numerous walk-and-talk scenes as Ball takes no prisoners in her efforts to ensure that she and Arnaz have complete control over the show’s production. That also includes keeping Vance looking dowdy so that the audience would believe that Ethel could be married to a man who is much older than her. (In reality, Vance was just two years older than Ball, while Frawley was 22 years older than Vance.) Not content with having four plotlines to cover, Sorkin also brings in such issues as Ball’s disdain for that episode’s director, Vance and Frawley’s well-documented dislike of each other, Ball’s desire to give her husband an executive producer’s credit on the show, her wanting to tweak scenes in the script (and in other scripts) to make them funnier, and the writers’ one upmanship on who came up with a joke first. Sorkin also frames his film with perspective coming from actors playing contemporary versions of show runner Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein), and writers Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin) and Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox). In the end, it all becomes a bit of an overkill with the story’s central plots hanging over both the film and the TV production like the Sword of Damocles only to be resolved in the film’s closing minutes.
While Kidman and Bardem both put in solid performances, as does Tony Hale (TOY STORY 4; LOVE, SIMON; TV’s VEEP and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) as a young Oppenheimer, they’re unfortunately not enough to make this story crackle with excitement. On the contrary, BEING THE RICARDOS is rather a slog to get through. I never would have believed that Aaron Sorkin could write a dull screenplay but here it is.
BEING THE RICARDOS is available now on Amazon Prime Video. Lucy and Desi deserve better than this.
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