Review: ‘Being the Ricardos’ a worthwhile trip back in time, backstage with Lucy and Desi

Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda and Nicole Kidman star in Being the Ricardos. (Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC, © Amazon Content Services LLC)

★★★★½ out of 5 -- Rated: R -- Run time: 2 hours, 11 minutes (In theaters Dec. 10, on Prime Video Dec. 21)

“I Love Lucy” premiered in 1951 with 180 episodes produced over six seasons. The comedy series about bandleader Ricky Ricardo and his trouble-finding wife Lucy became a ratings powerhouse in the early days of television and originated techniques like multiple camera set-ups and live audiences that are still followed today. The show is simply a classic.

Say the names “Lucy” and “Desi” and most people will know you are talking about the stars: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Their incredible success and rocky marriage have been the subject of documentaries and some TV movies, but now their story is getting the full Hollywood treatment with an A-list cast and the talented Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network” and “West Wing”) serving as both writer and director.

Sorkin has expertly framed the movie by focusing on one hectic week of production on a single episode of the show. He has taken some liberties by cramming a number of big events that happened over a long period (Ball becoming pregnant, being accused of being a communist, revelations of Arnaz having affairs) all into that one week… but he has made it work.

Sorkin has also weaved in a series of flashbacks to tell the story of how the couple met, Lucy’s faltering movie career, her rebirth on radio, and how she fought to have the Cuban-born Arnaz play her husband as they gambled on a new television show.

Javier Bardem, Christopher Denham, Nina Arianda, J.K. Simmons and Nicole Kidman star in Being the Ricardos. (© Amazon Content Services LLC)

The casting of this movie received lots of attention from fans of the series who openly wondered if there were actors who could pull off playing not only the famous couple but also their neighbors on the show -- Fred and Ethel Mertz -- who were memorably portrayed by William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Producers responded by casting three Oscar winners and one Tony Award recipient.

Nicole Kidman plays the iconic Lucy. She’s hardly a dead-ringer for Ball although she does manage to capture her voice much of the time. The make-up and hair color do enough to make her “Lucy” look acceptable, but where Kidman really succeeds is with her little mannerisms and the recreations of some of the classic Lucy skits. The scene where Kidman duplicates the famous grape-stomping escapade in Italy is spot-on, boosted even more by Sorkin’s decision to go to black-and-white for many of the “I Love Lucy” sequences.

Nicole Kidman on the set of Being the Ricardos. (© Amazon Content Services LLC)

Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) tackles the role of Desi Arnaz and while there’s not much of a resemblance, he manages a masterful job of walking the tightrope of making his character likable while also showing his capacity to be a womanizer. The actor is not known for being a singer but gives an admirable nightclub performance of songs like his signature “Babalu.” Bardem is also superb in scenes where he dramatically faces off against network executives in order to get his way.

Playing the parts of Fred and Ethel Mertz are J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) and Tony-award winner Nina Arianda. Simmons channels Frawley effectively, especially when he juts out his lower lip and is great showing off the gruff, tell-it-like-it-is side of his character. Arianda, on the other hand, doesn’t bear much resemblance to Vance but really demonstrates Vance’s struggle with being made to look less attractive and older than she was in real life. The story also details the complex yet close relationship between the two actresses.

Sorkin is known for smart, rapid-fire dialogue in projects like “The Social Network” and “The Newsroom” but knows here when to slow things down for dramatic effect.

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star in Being the Ricardos. (© Amazon Content Services LLC)

Some of the best moments come when Kidman as Lucy remains silent on the set while trying to get a handle on why a certain comedy skit isn’t working. You can almost hear the wheels inside her mind turning as she makes adjustments to scenes that are then shown in their full classic glory. It’s really impressive to watch.

Other wonderful moments are when Lucy meets with colleagues for one-on-one, heart-to-heart talks. One is in a bar with co-star Frawley where they both reveal secrets, and another is when she has a memorable back-and-forth with the show’s female writer, Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development.”)

Tony Hale, Director Aaron Sorkin and Nicole Kidman on the set of Being the Ricardos. (© Amazon Content Services LLC)

Another actor deserving praise is Shawkat’s co-star from that show Tony Hale. He plays Jess Oppenheimer, the executive producer of “I Love Lucy.” It would have been easy to make that character a harried caricature of an executive caught between his actors and the network, but Hale manages to make him a fascinating character walking a fine line.

Although there is a lot of story here, with some of it almost too-neatly wrapped up, “Being the Ricardos” is an impressive achievement. It gives people a backstage look at a beloved, classic TV show and the people who made it happen. 

I watched reruns of “I Love Lucy” growing up and found it a little emotional during the film when the on-set orchestra launches into the comedy show’s opening theme. This movie really is a worthwhile trip back to the 1950s to see some groundbreaking entertainment history.