Review Round-up: Do the Critics Love Nicole as Lucy?

Tuesday December 7, 2021

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in "Being the Ricardos"
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in "Being the Ricardos"  

Do the critics love Nicole as Lucy? The review embargo has been lifted for "Being the Ricardos," the Aaron Sorkin (he writes and directs) film that examines Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz during a pivotal week in their careers. As "I Love Lucy" is solidifying its place as the most-watched television program, with some 60 million viewers a week, columnist Walter Winchell accuses Ball of being a communist. Add to this that a tabloid publishes a pic of Arnaz with another woman, claiming that America's most loved married couple was on the rocks.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, the beloved comedienne who proved to be a canny businesswoman, and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, her equally talented musician husband. Together they created "I Love Lucy," television's first juggernaut series, in the 1950s. It features Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, who played the Mertzs, neighbors to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in a New York City apartment building.

The review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes rates the film at 66% based on 35 reviews. Some reviews are raves, such as by Kevin Maher in the London Times, who writes: "This is Sorkin squared, and the pleasure in the project is drawn from exquisitely written characters marching down studio corridors, sitting across studio boardrooms or stamping around rehearsal rooms while firing meticulously honed zingers at each other." (Note: Full review behind a firewall.)

NIcole Kidman and Javier Bardem
NIcole Kidman and Javier Bardem  

"The bottom line on "Being the Ricardos" is that it's irresistible," gushes Mike LaSalle on the website Datebook. "Javier Bardem captures Desi's macho aura and magnetism, but he lacks his humor..." he writes. "Kidman goes deeper into Lucy. Her speaking voice sounds like her — and not the Lucy of the sitcom, but the no-nonsense, hard-boiled veteran who would appear, as herself, on talk shows. Kidman gradually creates the sense that this is, indeed, a great woman...

"As for Sorkin, he is establishing himself as a major filmmaker of Americana. He did the 1990s with 'The American President' and 'West Wing'; the Vietnam era with 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'; and now he's done the '50s. I'd like to see what he could do with the '30s or '40s."

In a four-star review at Cinema Blend, Eric Eisenberg writes how biopics "are often sunk by their efforts to try and do too much, and 'Being The Ricardos' takes some bold risks dancing on that line. Aaron Sorkin very much tries to have it all by focusing on a singular week-in-the-life structure and also including the flashbacks and talking heads that add history and greater context to the events. In less skilled hands, the material could have emerged a jumble, but it plays because of Sorkin's brilliant ability to take what could be a chaos of conflict and organize it all so that each piece of drama is designed to bounce off of another..."

He adds that both Kidman and Bardem are "phenomenal..."

"They are complicated performances — if not especially because of Lucille Ball playing 'Lucy' and Desi Arnaz playing 'Desi' in the show within the movie — but the two Academy Award winning stars do genius work playing the different attitudes and dynamics. Nicole Kidman proves herself surprisingly adept at physical comedy... but she is also exceptional in illustrating Ball's genius comedic mind behind-the-scenes and her struggle dealing with the multitude of pressures in her life (such as being a model for women in Hollywood and her overwhelming desire to have a real 'home')..."

NIcole Kidman and Javier Bardem
NIcole Kidman and Javier Bardem  

But Johnny Oleksinski at the New York Post raves. "Let's put an end to all of the kvetching and moronic social media backlash about Nicole Kidman being cast as Lucille Ball in the new movie 'Being the Ricardos.' You were wrong, guys. The actress is sensational in the part — and is doing the finest work of her career...

"I've always had my reservations about Sorkin as a director. His scripts tend to be better than his final products. Those druthers started to fade with the moving 'Trial of the Chicago 7' and are now completely gone after 'Being the Ricardos.' His vision of '50s TV production is spot-on — nostalgic, quick, boozy, but without the glamour of Hollywood movie-making."

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw was less impressed, giving the film two stars out of five and saying that the film is "An oddity, in which all the characters seem to be avatars for the loquacious Sorkin himself..." Of the cast, he writes: "Nicole Kidman gives a conscientious but bafflingly mannered, un-intuitive and latexed impersonation of Ball, and Javier Bardem is the roguish Arnaz. Nina Arianda and JK Simmons are Vivian Vance and William Frawley who played their neighbors Ethel and Fred; Tony Hale is their long-suffering executive producer Jess Oppenheimer and Alia Shawkat plays head writer Madelyn Pugh."

Alia Shawkat, Nicole Kidman and Nina Arianda
Alia Shawkat, Nicole Kidman and Nina Arianda  

At the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney agrees with Bradshaw about Sorkin being too present in the film. "But this chronicle of a fraught week in the production of CBS' phenomenally popular 1950s sitcom, 'I Love Lucy,' and the personal and professional lives of its married stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, arguably is as much about Aaron Sorkin as his celebrated subjects. While the film is never less than engrossing, its admiration for the nonpareil physical-comedy gifts of a pioneering giant of American television seems secondary to its coopting of her as a quintessentially Sorkinesque smartest person in the room...

"The smartest person in any room on an Aaron Sorkin film is invariably Aaron Sorkin, and he can't get out of his own way here..."

Rooney does, though, have nothing but praise for the film's cast. "Favoring deep-dive characterization over physical resemblance or mimicry, the performances of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as golden-age TV's best-loved couple can't be faulted. Likewise, those of J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as actors Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Ricardos' best friends and neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, on TV. All four do standout work, with sturdy backup from Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy as the three writers' room fixtures struggling to pull together an episode amid constant disruptions."

In a three-star review at London's The Independent, Clarisse Loughrey warns, "You won't really find Lucille Ball in this film. You are always, and inescapably, watching Nicole Kidman approximate her, Ball's thin, pen mark eyebrows traced over her own..." But, she adds, the lack of resemblance between the subjects and the actors playing them doesn't matter. "Sorkin's film doesn't really function as a biopic. It is, primarily, a drama about the inner mechanics of comedy writing...

"To give Kidman and Bardem some credit, their performances haven't been entirely deprived of mimicry. They're able to capture certain mannerisms and vocal inflections — Kidman goes lower to capture Ball's husky tones, the mark of a lifetime of smoking. Bardem clearly practiced Arnaz's catchphrase of 'Lucy, you've got some 'splaining to do!' until he got it right. But that doesn't erase Kidman's natural, whispery tones or Bardem's granite-carved features. They're two distinctive, well-known performers being asked to play two other distinctive, well-known performers. That's simply too much of a gap to bridge."

In his glowing review in Variety, Owen Glieberman writes the film is "very much a heady helping of Sorkinese — and a beautiful illustration of what can be intoxicating about it...

"Everything that happens in 'Being the Ricardos' really did happen. But it didn't happen in the same week, or anything close to it, and Sorkin, by presenting it as if it did (not that he's trying to fool anyone; he's acknowledged the made-up timeline in interviews), has actually created a quintessential expression of the Sorkinese aesthetic. The dialogue in 'Being the Ricardos' has the blunt directness, dagger wit, and perfectly cut corners of Sorkinese ­­— a sound that might be described as hardass Talmudic screwball. Beyond that, though, the entire movie is a piece of thrillingly stylized compression."

But at Slant, Jake Cole was far less impressed with Sorkin. "As a writer, Aaron Sorkin has always been stubbornly formulaic, often relying on the same set of recurring narrative structures and pet themes, from an overreliance on flashbacks to a reflexive respect for American institutions. All of those tics are brought to bear on his third directorial effort, 'Being the Ricardos,' which also suffers from the clichés inherent to the biopic genre..."

He does, though love Kidman. "Kidman, in particular, does some of the best work of her career as Ball. Like all Sorkin-penned characters, this film's version of the sitcom legend is a mouthpiece for his brand of smarmy, know-it-all sarcasm, with little of the real actress's mastery of physical comedy on display. But the focus here is less comic than dramatic, and Kidman homes in on how Ball's razor-sharp sense of humor is informed by a great deal of professional and personal anxiety."

"Being the Ricardos" opens in limited release on December 10. It will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime on December 21.