Being the Ricardos

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin

Starring Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J. K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Sawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg

“Recorded in front of a live, studio audience!” What it must’ve been like to have been on a studio set. Well, I no longer need to dream – Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” is here to allow a kid to see the goings-on behind the camera.

I grew up in the 1980s with ‘The Golden Girls,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘Night Court,’ ‘Newhart,’ and the like on primetime television. I also grew up with reruns of primetime shows of yesterday, like ‘I Love Lucy,’ ‘The Addams Family,’ ‘The Munsters,’ ‘Star Trek,’ I dreamed of the opportunity to sit in a live audience, to be a participant in a moment of television history. Alas, I watched from the comfort of my parents’ home in Wisconsin, far away from the sound stages that delivered delight to the family television.

Sorkin himself is a powerhouse when it comes to primetime television with The West Wing,’ ‘Sportsnight,’ in addition to being a playwright and an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for his self-adaptation of “A Few Good Men.” There’s something unique about the way Sorkin interweaves complex emotion and politics into a script, and, along with his direction, he delights once again in “Being the Ricardos,” a backstage pass to what goes into the production of a single television episode.

Much is known about the tumultuous years between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, dedicated professionals to their crafts. Their production company, Desilu Studios, was a significant factor in the original ‘Star Trek’ series.

“Being the Ricardos” focuses on one particular, important week for Lucy and Desi as they struggle through a PR nightmare and their relationship struggles. They are madly in love and enthusiastically committed to the quality of the production. Yet, without Nicole Kidman, who disappears into the role, and Javier Bardem, who is as tough as they come, “Being the Ricardos” would be just another film in a sea of biopics. With an adept direction from Sorkin, who understands the film’s medium, Kidman and Bardem shine.

Sorkin knows he needs to draw us into the story, the world that the Ricardo’s inhabited, and takes a tongue-in-cheek, documentary style with interviews from “those who were there.” This might seem off-putting at first, but each of John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin, and Ronny Cox make us feel at home, drawing us into a part of the goings-on back in the 60s.

Kidman’s performance as Lucy is fraught with the demeaning attitudes toward women, the constant disagreement with her suggestions in the writer’s room, and coming into her own as a producer, something that wasn’t respected at the time. Time has been favorable toward Lucy, who knew how to reach her audience, who understood the mechanics of comedy and conveying it, not just to the studio audience but also those at home. Bardem is magnetic as the amazing Desi Arnaz, who, as a musician, just wanted to entertain. He also believed in what they were trying to say with the show and their romance.

Yet, Arnaz was also a womanizer, a subject at the heart of their troubles. Sorkin portrays “Being the Ricardos” in a soap opera-like way, layering each of their issues separately, bringing them together as the supporting cast literally, recognizing the problems for what they are. Nina Arianda is impressive as Vivian Vance. Sorkin gives Arianda and Kidman a scene together, taking their differences head-on. Two women who know their worth to the world have to duke it out to come to terms mentally.

Similarly, J. K. Simmons, who I admit is having a hell of a year (see “National Champions,” also opening this weekend), steps up to the plate as William Frawley, the blustery cherub who dryly offers humor in the writer’s room, but knows the difference when something serious is happening. Simmons’ performance is equal to Bardem’s and Kidman’s. His scene with Kidman, where they restage a set that everyone else objects to at 4 am in the morning, is the stuff of legends.

Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography for such a statically told film brings brilliance to 1960’s California, and Daniel Pemberton’s score evokes a sense of nostalgia that fits the story to a ‘t.’

In a limited number of theatres for the next two weeks, before debuting on Amazon Prime on December 21st, Aaron Sorkin and the cast invite you into the struggles, the romance, and the passion behind the making of ‘I Love Lucy.’

R, 125 minutes, Amazon Studios