Has Aaron Sorkin ever met anyone who doesn’t sound like Aaron Sorkin?
That was the question that I found myself considering as I watched Sorkin’s latest film, Being the RIcardos. The film may present itself as being a film about Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) but neither Lucy nor Desi ever come across as being actual human beings or even celebrities trying to be human. Instead, they both come across as Sorkin stock characters. Lucy is the socially maladjusted genius who demands a lot from the people working for her and who struggles with apologizing. Desi is irresponsible but a hard worker, a man who makes a lot of mistakes but who should never be underestimated. They speak in quips and they instinctively understand what the people in their audience want to see. Who can keep up with Lucy and Desi? Certainly not the suits from the network! Trial of the Chicago 7 had Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman taking on the military industrical complex. Being the Ricardos has Lucy and Desi taking on both the entertainment industry and the McCarthy era.
The film claims to tell the story of the week that Lucy and Desi’s show, I Love Lucy, was nearly destroyed. The week started with columnist Walter Winchell revealing that, when she was in her 20s, Lucy was briefly registered as a member of the Communist Party. (Lucy explains that she did it as a favor for her grandfather, who “cared about the working man.”) The day after learning that her subversive past has been exposed, Lucy and Desi tell the show’s writing staff that Lucy is pregnant and they expect the writers to write her pregnancy into the show regardless of what the uptight studio execs declare. Meanwhile, Lucy has to deal with rumors of Desi’s infidelity while Desi struggles with being overshadowed by his wife. Lucy’s co-star, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), resents having to play a frumpy character while her other co-star, William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), spends most of the movie drunk off his ass. If anything Frawley and Vance come across as being more interesting than either Lucy or Desi but, just as in real life, this is the Lucy show. Frawley makes a few drunken comments about a seven year-old communist. Vance sits in her dressing room and fumes. In real life, when she learned Lucy was pregnant, she reportedly yelled, “I’d tell you to go fuck yourself but apparently Desi already did that!” That line isn’t in the film, which is a shame.
The film skips around in time. There’s an odd framing device, taking place in what I presume is meant to be the 80s and featuring the surviving members of the production staff are being interviewed for a documentary. Why Sorkin decided to use this documentary device is odd. It seems like he could have just used real archival footage if he wanted to go for a documentary approach as opposed to staging a fake documentary where older actors playing real people still sound like relentlessly quippy supporting characters in a Sorkin film. We also get the occasional flashback to the early days of Lucy and Desi’s relationship, none of which are particularly interesting. One of the people being interviewed for the documentary tells us that, before she met Desi, Lucy was being groomed to become a serious dramatic actress. “She could have starred in All About Eve and blown the doors off!” we’re told and that’s great but is that the opinion on the fictionalized person being interviewed for the documentary or is that something that Aaron Sorkin came up with to try to create some dramatic tension? I mean, saying that Lucy would have been the equal of Bette Davis is quite a statement but the film doesn’t show us any scenes of Lucy being a particularly skilled dramatic actress so it just comes across as being kind of overly dramatic thing to say.
We do get several scenes of Lucy explaining why jokes are funny. Nicole Kidman gets a very serious look on her face while Sorkin shows us what’s happening inside her mind. Lucy pictures herself, in black-and-white, stepping on grapes in Italy. Dramatic music swells as we snap back to Lucy declaring what the scene needs to truly be funny. (“I lose an earring,” she says, as if she’s just figured out how to resolve Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.) It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder if Aaron Sorkin has ever actually told a joke that he didn’t spend a few hours thinking about ahead of time. The film’s portrayal of what went on behind-the-scenes of I Love Lucy is so portentous and overdramatic that it really only makes sense if you accept the idea of creating television being some sort of religious ritual, with showrunners and producers taking the place of God. God needed 6 days to create the world but Lucy only needs 5 to create classic television comedy. Take that, God!
Aaron Sorkin is a writer who desperately needs a cynical collaborator. With The Social Network and Moneyball, Sorkin was fortunate to be paired with David Fincher and Bennett Miller, two directors with notably dark views of humanity and who served to temper Sorkin’s sanguine excesses. When Sorkin directs his own material, the audience ends up with scenes like Joseph Gordon-Levitt standing in protest at the end of The Trial of the Chicago 7 or Desi Arnaz calling J. Edgar Hoover from the set of I Love Lucy in Being The Ricardos. These are deeply silly scenes that did not happen in real life and which, even more importantly, should never have gotten past a first draft. Sorkin’s need to end everything with a “big hero” moment is his most glaring flaw as both a writer and a director.
For the record, Lucille Ball did register as a communist when she was younger. And, indeed, it is true that she did it as a favor for her grandfather. It was briefly a news story but Lucy was quickly cleared. Before shooting that week’s episode, Desi told the audience that “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair and even that is not legitimate.” That was a good line and no, Desi didn’t need the help of J. Edgar Hoover to sell it.