When I reviewed The Trial of the Chicago 7 last year, I made note of a lot of the creative hallmarks of Aaron Sorkin’s career, both positive and negative. But there was one element I left out of the equation, mostly because it wasn’t relevant to that particular film. He has a somewhat elitist penchant for highlighting the more toxic traits of some of his leading characters as if they’re somehow positive qualities. With varying degrees of success, once Sorkin has decided who the smartest person in the room is going to be, they ALWAYS have to be right, even if they’re total dicks about it. This is true of Will McAvoy on The Newsroom, Dana Whitaker on Sports Night, and Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. The success of these gambits depends largely on the quality of the actor putting all of this asshole behavior on display, with Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg knocking it out of the freaking park, while Felicity Huffman showed moments of brilliance in a largely shrill performance over her show’s run.
These characters can easily be interpreted as projections of Sorkin himself, who quite often fancies himself a creative genius, and most of the time he’s right. But in creating antagonistic leads who outright alienate the rest of the cast, he digs himself a hole from which it can be quite difficult to escape. Can someone be hero and villain simultaneously, and more importantly, can the audience find enough good in the character to still root for them? How much likability and relatability are the characters able to sacrifice while also showing a greater goodness that redeems them in the viewers’ eyes?
With Being the Ricardos, Sorkin starts with a massive advantage on this front, as Lucille Ball is a universally-beloved legend of television and comedy. She also was famous for her assertive nature, which has only enhanced her legacy as a feminist icon. Given that, it’s even more disappointing than it normally would have been that Sorkin turns her into little more than a micromanaging shrew.
The film takes place during a week of prep and filming of the I Love Lucy episode “Fred and Ethel Fight” in 1952. Coincidentally, there are news report and gossip stories about Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) cheating on Ball (Nicole Kidman), and of Ball being a communist, having been interviewed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. On top of everything else, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) is dealing with an eating disorder, Bill Frawley (J.K. Simmons) is annoyed with everything, and Ball herself becomes pregnant with the couple’s second child, Desi Arnaz Jr.
If the compressed sequence of events feels a little too convenient to be true, trust that instinct. Ball’s interview with HUAC was a year after this particular episode filmed, and the devastating tabloid reports of Desi’s infidelity actually predate the show. More importantly, executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) is the lead obstacle towards depicting Lucy’s pregnancy on the show, even though it was actually his idea in real life.
Artistic license is a funny thing, and it can work if it serves the proper narrative purpose. Compare this film to Chicago 7, where events of the trial were condensed for dramatic effect, and certain parts of the transcript were assigned to different players. Yes, you’re flubbing with absolute accuracy, but overall it serves the grander point of illustrating the sham nature of the trial while also crafting a courtroom drama that intentionally looks like it’s been adapted from a stage play rather than an official record. This makes sense for the film, and it makes sense for Sorkin’s affinity for the theatre.
But here, there really is no story-based point for all of these crises to hit at the exact same time, other than to show Ball as this hopelessly put-upon genius who has to solve every problem, no matter who it inconveniences or how unprofessional it is. Hell, for half the film she makes snide comments about episode director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham) for no particular reason other than to make him feel small. The same goes for writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), who never misses an opportunity to verbally emasculate her writing partner Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy). Ball goes along with it until she has a disagreement with Pugh about the staging and writing of the episode’s opening scene, then denigrates her as well. Even when things seem like they’ll all work out and a happy ending is on the horizon, Sorkin, through Ball, has to get the upper hand one last time to remind us all that she’s the best, even though nobody ever suggests any other interpretation of her.
Now, as I said, a lot of this likely comes from Sorkin projecting his ego. Every time Lucy and Desi play hardball with network executives, all I see is Sorkin ending The Newsroom rather than leave his precious ideas in the hands of capable writers to continue the series. But again, it also comes down to the capabilities of the performer delivering this supremely flawed character. As it is, Nicole Kidman (despite an absolutely atrocious makeup job) does give us flashes of what made Lucille Ball one of the greatest comedic minds of all time. When we see her perform as Lucy Ricardo on the show, it feels like Lucy, even if she doesn’t look like Lucy. There are even a few moments where that special degree of panache that made Ball truly unique are on display behind the scenes. I’d say it makes up about 25% of the role. The other 75%, unfortunately, is her treating everyone except Frawley like they’re shit under her shoes, and again, for no good reason. You can’t even excuse it as an assertion of feminist ideals – as she truly was a woman fighting in a man’s world – because she goes out of her way to bring down the other women around her too, which would only undermine such an argument.
In an attempt to portray Ball as a sympathetic pioneer, the film instead shows her to be anything but. And in those few moments where she deigns to show a shred of humility and humanity, it feels like gaslighting, which is rich given that there’s an actual line where Kidman tells Bardem not to gaslight her. Rather, it’s Arianda, Hale, and Simmons who draw the audience’s goodwill. This is particularly true of Simmons, who as Bill Frawley not only gets the best lines, but is the only one consistently willing to lovingly and gently call Ball out on her particular brand of bullshit, both in her professional and personal life. It’s a performance worthy of another Supporting Actor nomination.
Outside of the actual storyline, there are some pretty spectacular elements that raise the overall grade of the picture significantly. More than most, Sorkin is able to accurately and creatively depict the inner workings of the TV industry, be it news, sports, or now entertainment. Within the story that can make things even more frustrating, particularly the complete lack of respect for Oppenheimer as an EP/Showrunner and the demands he has to deal with as the middle man between the crew and the network, but in a vacuum it is staggering how real the creative and logistical disagreements feel. I know this from personal experience. Further, the recreation of the I Love Lucy set is absolutely immaculate, as are the reenacted scenes from the show, which are cut as flashbacks in black-and-white to contrast with the color of the main action, brilliant examples of great cinematography and editing. Again, the cast doesn’t look like their counterparts, but they certainly feel like them. Daniel Pemberton’s score (shortlisted by the Academy) has a very nice flow, balancing the fast-paced cues of the production schedule with the slow, sweeping ones of Ball’s private life.
But all of that isn’t quite enough to make this movie a true success. It’s alright, but there are some glaring problems that individual production aspects can’t entirely overcome. There’s a line from Rick and Morty that played in my head throughout most of the film: “When you’re an asshole, it doesn’t matter how right you are, nobody wants to give you the satisfaction.” That’s how I felt watching this. Lucille Ball is one of the greatest of all time without question, but the way Sorkin depicts her, she’s just an asshole who has to be right all the time, and when she is, we don’t care because she goes way too far with it. Sorkin, on the other hand, wants to lionize that attitude, going so far as to frame the whole film with flashbacks to pre-Lucy life and interviews with older versions of the writers (played by Linda Lavin, John Rubenstein, and Ronny Cox) as if she’s Charles Foster Kane. Except where Kane was a complex, severely damaged soul who thought he could buy happiness, this version of Lucille Ball is just a petulant bitch who decides her intellect is more important than anyone else’s life. And that’s no fun at all.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did this film improve or degrade your impressions of Lucille Ball? What’s your favorite episode of the show? Let me know!