Although we know the comedic genius of Lucille Ball on TV, it was a long unintended road to get there. She attended the John Murray Anderson School for Dramatic Arts in the late 1920’s only to be told that she would not become a successful star. In the early 30’s she received some chorus girl work on Broadway, but that didn’t last. She had better luck playing small roles in movies made in Hollywood which in turn lead her back to Broadway and she continued back and forth. By the 1940’s she was nicknamed by some as the “Queen of the Bs” in the world of movies.
Lucy met Cuban band leader Desi Arnaz during the making of the film Too Many Girls. They dated briefly and were married in less than a year. By 1948, Ball had pretty much given up the notion that she would ever become a big movie star and took a role for the CBS radio show comedy, My Favorite Husband. The show was a hit and CBS noted that Ball portrayed all of her lines with great expression. They offered her a chance to bring the show to TV. Ball agreed, but only if she could work alongside HER favorite husband, Desi. After some major changes to the storyline, I Love Lucy became a reality and aired its first show in 1951.
Much of the above is mentioned and/or shown in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Riccardos, even though the premise of the movie is supposed to take place during one week of the couple’s life. It is during this week that Desi is accused of cheating on his wife, Lucille is accused of being a communist and the couple announce that they are in the early stages of having a second child together, which they wanted to incorporate into the comedy show. All three of those things threatened to kill I Love Lucy for good.
As a life-long I Love Lucy fan, I have been looking forward to this biopic for a long time which manages to cram all kinds of interesting “behind-the-scenes” storytelling within its 131-minute run time. The casting alone is brilliant: Nicole Kidman as Lucy, Javier Bardem as Desi, J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and Tony Hale as Jess Oppenheimer, the head writer for I Love Lucy. The attention to detail from Lucy’s facial expressions to the set design, is flawless. It’s a history lesson without an agenda unlike so many other similar films.
I was surprised to learn just how influential Desi was to the I Love Lucy show; I had thought that Lucille had ran the whole production with him only along for the ride. He proved to be a shrewd business man while Lucille was a perfectionist with good instincts about the many comedic bits on the show. She liked his ideas and really respected him, even if she couldn’t trust him at times. He in turn would often stick his neck out for her.
The movie also introduces us to Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy), two writers for the show who were constantly at odds with each other, providing an inside look at how all the magic happens, even when it doesn’t look so magical. Besides Kidman and Bardem, the relationship between these two is the best thing about Being the Riccardos.
Unfortunately, it is this film’s strengths that ultimately drags this movie down. Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent film and a pop culture fan’s dream in many ways. But Being the Ricardos is slow and surprisingly, not nearly as fun as it should be. Yes, there is a lot of witty dialogs, but we never really see any of these characters lighten up. They are all so serious. Some themes are played out way too long; like Lucy’s constant need to change one short scene from the week’s taping of the comedy show.
I Love Lucy was an ensemble show and I know that those actors enjoyed working on it (even if Frawley and Vance didn’t get along), but that joy is never fully captured. Even with the stresses that the Arnazs faced at the time, I doubt that they wouldn’t still be able to find some of the humor there too. Even the film’s score is overly serious.
The bouncing back and forth in the story timeline and the addition of “personal” interviews with older versions of Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein), Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Ronny Cox) is needlessly confusing too.
The real love life between Ball and Arnaz was a complicated one. Two Type-A personalities rarely mix well. Lucille really wanted a “normal” family life with her husband. Desi had a hard time playing second fiddle to his more successful wife. Still, even though they got divorced a short time after finishing making magic on TV, the two remained friends and neither seemed to have regretted making I Love Lucy.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.