At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Being the Ricardos “2021”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Biographical Drama/ Stars: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Jeff Holman, Jonah Platt, Christopher Denham, Brian Howe, Ron Perkins, John Rubinstein, Ronnie Cox, Linda Lavin/Runtime: 131 minutes

I think it is safe to say that around the time we as movie goers begin to reach the end of every year we know one thing for sure to expect from a lot of the major (and even some of the independent) film studios. That would be that it is around this distinct period of time that we see the studios release in droves their star-studded biographies as well as docudramas to both attract the attention of various awards outlets in order to get recognition for the studios and their stars some really nice paperweights you can’t buy at Office Max, but also to revive a cinematic debate that has seemingly been around since the beginning of time let alone the known universe: when an actor makes the choice to portray a real human being rather than one that is the creation of a writer’s imagination then what truly is the definition of a grade-A portrayal? Indeed is it completely and utterly dependent on the actor’s talents to showcase the spirit of a person within the framework of the narrative that the distinct slice of cinema is regaling us as movie goers with, or is it a requirement for the actor to completely vanish and, for all intents and purposes, become the person that they are portraying and thus make the audience believe that the person in question has miraculously somehow been resurrected from the dead for a few hours? Indeed the fact that this is one question that is constantly being raised whenever a new biopic or docudrama engages in a different way of going about things seems to me to strongly hint that there is not a single definitive answer nor will there ever be one. Yet the reason I bring this up to you dear reader is because it wasn’t even 6 months ago that celebrated writer Aaron Sorkin’s latest directorial effort Being The Ricardos proved to be the slice of cinema that contributed the latest intriguing curve to this iconic conversation in the land of movie magic. This is because this is one slice of cinema that, even before its release, has found itself at the core of a degree of low-key bewilderment in regards to its casting. To put it bluntly: there is a group of people who have really called this slice of cinema out for choosing celebrated and extremely gifted thespians Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem respectively portray Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with their core argument being that they feel there are performers in the land of movie magic who could physically embody this legendary duo a lot better. Well I have seen this slice of cinema (finally….took me a little while I know) and honestly I’ll be the first to admit that this quite vocal group does have an argument that is correct….to an extent. I say that because yes this slice of cinema doesn’t really try in any significant manner to transform its main duo into Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz respectively. Yet with that being said, what I ultimately find interesting about this slice of cinema is, even with that in mind, it does manage to permit this dynamic duo to uncover the creative spirits of these two immensely talented icons and as a result give performances that do a terrific job at showing us who these two people were not only when the cameras were rolling, but who they were when the stage lights shut down and the director yelled the final “Cut!” for the day. Suffice it to say therefore that whilst Being the Ricardos is not a great slice of cinema by any means, it is one that is made with both skill and flair to say nothing of proving by the end to be a loving tribute to the pair at the heart of it as well.

The plot is as follows: Structured to a degree as a fake documentary-style film with a trinity of actors playing writers from the iconic television show I Love Lucy giving present day interviews where they think back on their part in making the show what it was, this slice of cinema chooses to place its concentration on a single week in the making of the show albeit one smeared with controversy and organized chaos. This is because as the creative team tries to get the latest episode up and running, everyone is also nervous about a possible storm on the horizon due to a bit of gossip that paints series star Lucille Ball as a member of the Communist Party. Thus to cope with how stressful her situation is, we see that Lucy makes the choice to take over on a lot more of the creative choices than she normally would, but of course this just winds up making things even more tense since it really calls to task her husband Desi’s more traditional perspective that he should be calling the shots since he’s the man in the relationship. Yet on top of all that, we also see that there are skirmishes aplenty amongst the show’s writers to say nothing of the fact that even the support cast is in disarray due in no small part to the fact that co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley have zero qualms about making their dislike for each other as known as they can possibly make it. Suffice it to say then that this is chaos at its finest, but if cast and crew can make it through then they will be successful at dealing with these respective storms head on whilst also adding another chapter to a show that has gone on to become no less than legendary….

Now if there has ever been one form of kryptonite that has often inflicted the genre of movie magic known as the biopic, it would be that far too often do we see slices of cinema try to plain and simply do way too much. Suffice it to say that Being the Ricardos is one slice of cinema that is gutsy enough to risk engaging in a cinematic tango on this distinct line. Indeed film helmer/scribe Aaron Sorkin really does try to have his cake and eat it too by concentrating on a single week in the lives of his characters for a narrative structure whilst also inserting both flashbacks as well as talking heads that contribute both history and a better perspective to everything that we are seeing unfold before us. Indeed in the hands of someone who is less talented, this slice of cinema could have been a downright mess, but it works as well as it does because it’s helmer has a brilliant gift for taking this chaos and organizing it in a way that permits each component is able to play off each other as effectively as possible. Yes you could argue that this slice of cinema is way too dramatic to the extent that it both really puts a strain on credibility as well as tossing plausibility on a bonfire courtesy of cramming key moments that didn’t occur in a week-long period of time as this slice of cinema seems to suggest, but it is a choice that does manage to work when you can accept this narrative deals a lot more in terms of emotional honesty rather factual honesty. Indeed the hurricane that is conjured up here is manufactured as a way to best showcase the lives and ordeals of its dynamic duo and in pulling it off Sorkin is able to triumphantly showcase aspects to the two main characters that you may never have known existed. Indeed most may just view Lucy as a comedic female ginger and Desi as a charming bandleader, but what we see occur in this slice of cinema really does contribute further wonderful dimensions to them as people and a lot of that can be attributed to the wonderful skill and work done by this slice of cinema’s helmer/scribe.

Now Sorkin’s fairly smart decision not to completely smother his dynamic duo in both copious amounts of prosthetic work as well as mountains of makeup is a wonderfully subtle representation of what he is trying to achieve with their casting. Yet what will ultimately sell you on this, and thereby make this a pair of truly wonderful performances, is the fact that both Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are both magnetic in this slice of cinema. Indeed instead of trying to have the movie goer be sidetracked and/or astonished by their transformation on an aesthetic level, this dynamic duo manage to give their roles the justice they deserve courtesy of getting Lucy and Desi’s various quirks and physical presence let alone their terrific work at getting how this duo spoke down solid. Now don’t get me wrong dear reader: this pair of performances are quite complex to pull off if for no other reason than the fact that they are playing both the real-life people as well as the characters that the duo portrayed in their hit show “I Love Lucy”, but this award-winning pair are brilliant in giving audiences their distinct attitudes and relationships. Indeed in the role of Lucy/Lucille Ball, Nicole Kidman is able to show she is delightfully talented as a physical comedian and actually will make you both laugh and smile especially when this slice of cinema chooses to recreate an iconic gag from I Love Lucy where Lucy chooses to stomp some grapes at a lovely vineyard. At the same time though, Kidman is also wonderfully talented in the moments that show us how brilliant Ball was behind the scenes as well to say nothing of her dealing with the smorgasbord of stresses she is engaged in conflict with including, but not limited to being someone women could aspire to be, her desire to have a stable home life, and the fact that Desi may or may not be seeing other women on the side to name but a few. Indeed it’s a truly complex performance, but in the hands of a skilled actress like Kidman it really becomes something truly special to behold. Yet lest you think that all the stress in this situation was on Lucy’s plate, it can honestly be said that I’m not the most brilliant person in the world, but I would guess that being someone from Cuba who was in a marriage with a white female in that distinct decade known as the 1950s here in the United States was most likely no picnic for Desi Arnaz either. Yet even though Being the Ricardos does make the narrative choice to give us a bit more in regards to things from Lucille Ball’s point of view, I still feel that just how phenomenal the work done in this by Javier Bardem is truly something that should not be overlooked by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed Bardem is truly engaging and full of charisma in aspects of this role that I can honestly say are a complete and utter 180 if not on the far side of the cinematic galaxy when it comes to the more iconic roles we as movie goers have seen him portray in such slices of cinema as 2007’s No Country for Old Men and 2012’s Skyfall. At the same time however, it is also an incredible treat to see Barden merge this megawatt charm and charismatic screen presence with an ironclad will that often comes out when he is debating his vision for the show with both its group of producers as well as with the various network executives in charge of determining whether to pick it up or not. Any way you look at it however, there is no denying that this is a truly incredible turn that proves to be a brilliant match for the work done in this slice of cinema by Nicole Kidman

All in all I think it can safely be said that in the aftermath of the engaging Molly’s Game from 2017 and the downright wonderful Netflix gem that is The Trial Of The Chicago 7 from 2020, we see that iconic scribe Aaron Sorkin has now decided to head back to an area that he is both familiar and agreeable with in the form of a look behind the scenes of a legendary TV program with this slice of cinema and in nearly every way it is yet another win for this wonderfully creative talent. Sure there are moments throughout where Sorkin can’t help and makes the choice to give in to some of his creative vices and as a result certain moments are way too overwritten with a quite gripping cast assembling in the final act to name an example. At the same time however, it should also be said that there is an enormous amount of appreciation and respect for the creative process that is shown in this slice of cinema that it will quickly acquire the praise of any fan of either television and/or cinema. Thus yes Being the Ricardos is a slightly messy slice of cinema, but it is also crafted lovingly and thus proves to be as wonderful of an ode to the titular icons as one might, under the circumstances, hope for it to be. On a scale of 1-5 I give Being the Ricardos “2021” a solid 3.5 out of 5.