starring Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda
written and directed by Aaron Sorkin
by Walter Chaw One of the best home viewing experiences I ever had was going through New Line's "Infinifilm" DVD of Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days with my wife, clicking on every single prompt to view the voluminous supplementary material threaded through the picture and getting what felt like a freshman-level introductory course on the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. An old and dear friend here in the Denver Market threw his hands up while we were talking about Aaron Sorkin's Being the Ricardos and asked, rhetorically and not to an imaginary Sorkin, "Why Aaron Sorkin?" It's a great question. I think the "why Aaron Sorkin" is that he is the human manifestation of the "Infinifilm" concept but less educational and more facile and self-indulgent, hence populist in the worst way. That is, populist in a way that seems prestigious but is, in fact, playing to the groundlings-infested pit. Emboldened perhaps by the success of the David Fincher-directed/Sorkin-scripted The Social Network and the Bennett Miller-directed/Sorkin-co-scripted Moneyball, Sorkin's directorial efforts so far--Molly's Game, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and now Being the Ricardos--have all been based on true stories. Maybe he figures he's hit a rich vein of biopic dramaturgy that he can strip-mine until this mountain is just a pile of rubble littered with Oscars. Sorkin is a slick one-trick pony, that guy. Giddyup, cowboys.
Being the Ricardos covers a week in early 1952 during which Walter Winchell, on his nationally-influential muckraking radio program, intimates that Lucille Ball was maybe Red in more ways than hair colour. This causes a stir in the HUAC-crazed United States, of course, as getting branded a Commie would be a career-ender for anyone, including the biggest star on the nation's hottest show. Sorkin uses Fosse-ian talking heads to introduce his dramatic re-enactments of tense table-reads, the classic Sorkin walking-and-talking vignettes, and a lot of faux-inspirational hoo-ha, the better to impart unearned tingles while playing fast and loose with known, and recent, history. Like the scene in the first third of the film where William Frawley (J.K. Simmons, J.K. Simmons-ing) makes a speech about how however much he hates Communists, he hates McCarthyism more. Oh, stop it. Later, Lucy (Nicole Kidman) assembles all the women speaking-parts on a bench so they can hug it out. This is galling because it's patronizing, even before show-writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) tells Lucy that Lucy is her hero and Lucy tells her how much she cares about her. This is when Sorkin the director reserves the aspirational violins of Daniel Pemberton's score, leading up to another hero moment where Lucy praises her supporting cast. Oh, my god, will you stop it.
During this fateful week (not exactly the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but almost as important), Lucy also susses out that her husband, notorious lothario Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), is cheating on her--which is the other story the tabloids have latched onto. Sorkin, despite the evidence of his PowerPuff scene, posits that Desi was the real mastermind, the business genius and master negotiator, behind Desi and Lucy's production company, Desilu. Because Sorkin can't help himself, he makes J. Edgar Hoover a hero, too. The historical Hoover kept an active file on Ball, investigating her involvement with the Communist Party throughout the Fifties, but whatever, I'm not the expert here, Sorkin is the expert. Not unlike his The Trial of the Chicago 7, the first half-hour or so of Being the Ricardos is pretty good in that snappy pit-pat way of table-setting that ultimately proves to be not just Sorkin's metier but really all that he's very good at. He knows how to introduce a premise and a large cast of characters while imparting a sense that whatever story he's telling, it's a fucking important one. That's a gift. What he's not good at is resisting his worst impulses for the rest of it. He's incapable of creating ambiguous heroes and villains--which is only a problem when you're not dealing with real people. Except that's all Sorkin ever seems to do anymore.
I loved Nina Arianda's Vivian Vance, how she's tired of being the butt of unattractive- and aging-woman jokes on the show and how Sorkin sorts it out by having Lucy observe that not many women look like Lucy, but a lot of women look like Ethel. That's interesting. I liked Bardem's unaffected turn as Desi, and I liked Kidman, whose casting is fascinating because she is, to my mind, a tremendous actor with wonderful instincts for smaller, quirky productions who appears in big-budget films sometimes. She's like Scarlett Johansson in that sense, and similarly underestimated as a genuinely edgy performer. Her casting when it was first announced felt like an unfortunate bit of star-fucking--but the Kidman in Being the Ricardos is the quirky indie version of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Stoker, Margot at the Wedding, Birth, and Dogville. She's fantastic here, although the material lets her down. It lets everyone down. They're ready for something difficult and incisive; what they get instead is a prestige picture seeking awards and the approval of general audiences, which is what it will get. I remember reading an interview with Huey Lewis once back in the late-'80s where the frontman reminisced about how The News took apart the top of the charts to see what elements they needed to emulate, the better to find themselves at the tops of those charts. I think about that when I watch stuff like Being the Ricardos: projects that are more a cynical calculation than a gamble--a rigged fight, a horse race where the fix is in, a card game where the deck is marked and the players are counting cards anyway. It's safe as a pram, though you have to be a baby to fit in it.