Last year at this time there was a big buzz regarding Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” which went on to earn six Oscar nominations. It was the renowned playwright and screenwriter’s second turn behind the camera after making his directorial debut with 2017’s “Molly’s Game.” This year the director’s focus is on television’s most famous couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem who may not resemble the Hollywood icons but are still riveting to watch.

There are enough glimpses of some of the funniest “I Love Lucy” episodes in “Being the Ricardos” to satisfy the fans but remember we’re talking about a Sorkin film and so you can throw the idea of a standard biopic out the window.

Sorkin zooms in on one of the most tumultuous weeks in the Hollywood couple’s life. Lucy confronts Ricky about his infidelity while trying to save her marriage. Meanwhile, she’s labeled a communist by radio broadcaster-gossip columnist Walter Winchell after discovering her possible ties to the party which puts Ricky in damage control as he tries to salvage his wife’s career and the television show, and for the cherry on top, Lucy is pregnant and CBS execs are against incorporating her pregnancy on the show. We all know how that worked out; Little Ricky was adorbs.

Let’s talk about the cast. Kidman doesn’t resemble Lucy despite the heavy makeup (it’s the arch in the eyebrows for me) but she does come close to getting the gravelly voice down. That’s a remarkable feat since Lucy was a known heavy smoker (who preferred Chesterfields over the sponsors Philip Morris brand) and Kidman is not. Still, it only takes a few minutes to get adjusted to the look difference as the American-born Australian actress encompasses the spirit of the comedic legend. Kidman is terrific as she portrays Lucy with vigor demonstrating how the actress was the glue that held that show together. She was “The Boss” no doubt in a male-dominated world who became proficient at working around misogyny in the workplace. Kidman’s tenacious portrayal soars as a testament to Lucy’s legacy.

Bardem is taller than Desi (who wore 4-inch lifts in his shoes) and has a bigger bone structure but like Kidman, he’s such a good actor that it only talks a few minutes to get adjusted to his portrayal as the energetic Cuban performer with a heavy accent. Bardem is best when he’s not hamming it up as Ricky Ricardo or tearing through the Afro-Cuban “Babalu” while pounding the conga. Those scenes are fun to watch, but it’s Desi the businessman that hits the mark as Bardem has to keep reminding the network that, as Philip Morris points out in a memo to network execs, “Don’t f—k with the Cuban.”

My favorite performances go to J.K. Simmons as William Frawley and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance who play bickering couple Fred and Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy.” Simmons is funny as the curmudgeon with a penchant for the bottle (he was rarely sober but knew when to stop when performing) while Arianda delivers a strong performance as the woman living in Lucy’s shadow. She was more attractive than the show’s star but frowned upon for losing weight or looking too good to avoid upstaging Lucy. In real life, Frawley and Vance did not get along (which probably helped with their performances). She despised having someone who was much older play her husband and he often used the B-word to describe her attitude. Sorkin includes scenes where both characters discuss how sensitive they were to their treatment but never let it affect them on the set.

While most of the film is set during a one-week period, flashbacks are included to show how Lucy met Desi on the set of “Too Many Girls,” he was a player, but she knew what she wanted and went after it. That scene serves as Sorkin’s way to establish that it marked the beginning of Lucille Ball’s drive to get everything she wants. Kidman excels in these power struggle moments as we watch her vigilantly maneuver through life.

Fans of “I Love Lucy” will enjoy all the behind-the-scenes moments. From the table reads, to the making of the grape-stomping episode, to the moments of Lucy’s comedic genius as she continuously reworks a scene where Ricky and Lucy invite Fred and Ethel to dinner to bring the separated couple back together. Her solution is comedy gold.

Lucy hated for her television character to be thought of as stupid. We see her constantly confronting the show’s writers and director about certain scenes including one involving Ricky coming home and sneaking up on Lucy, covering her eyes, and asking “Guess who?” She responds with around seven different names before Ricky turns her around and says, “It’s me.” It’s a funny scene that the average viewer would take as Lucy is having some fun and ribbing Ricky. But she was so concerned that the scene was senseless because there wouldn’t be other men in their apartment that she fought to get that scene changed. Sorkin spends too much time driving home the point that Lucy was under so much stress that she began to lose grip on reality.

Despite Lucy being a confident and strong woman, she was also a dedicated wife who always put her husband first. It was Team Desi from the beginning. When the network approached her about doing a television sitcom, she held out until they agreed to cast her real-life husband Desi in the role. She also pushed for him to receive an Executive Producer credit for the show but everything changed when she suspected him of cheating.

“Being the Ricardos” works on several levels and it shouldn’t. Bardem and Kidman are fantastic. Who cares that they don’t resemble Ball and Arnaz? Kristen Stewart doesn’t resemble Princess Diana in “Spencer” but she’s fantastic. This being a Sorkin film is also great for the supporting cast since most of his films are ensemble-driven. While this is not the biopic that some are expecting, the performances are superb and there’s just enough nostalgia to appease fans. The drama happening behind the scenes is fascinating and proves to be the film’s strongest asset.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in theaters

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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