In his third directing work Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin proves once and for all that he’s better off handing his witty prose to someone who knows where to place a camera, or else he runs the risk of being misjudged as another outdated and insensitive white male. The creator of The West Wing and pen behind The Social Network has showcased his viewpoints on modern social politics with such a musical style to his dialogue that every college screenwriting teacher must be bugged with the repetitive chant, “How can I write like Sorkin?” Since 2017’s Molly’s Game, the rockstar-level writer has taken a shine to directing his own scripts, offering deeper control of the melodic word he takes such care to preserve from his ink to the actor’s mouths.
The script of Being the Ricardos tries to use its structure to mask its lack of focus. Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are trying to get this week’s episode of I Love Lucy on the air as a rumor circulates about the former’s involvement with the communist party and the latter’s nocturnal habits. Flashback scenes that briskly sweep Lucy lovers through the origin story of the Ball/Arnaz relationship are scattered blotches on an otherwise well-structured narrative. Sorkin cheats a bit here; by compressing many of the events of the couples’ life into a workweek, he is able to ground the film in their clear goals while those concerned with the stakes of the movie instead of Lucy anecdotes wait for each trivial scene to finish up. This structure is not enough to gain forgiveness for the messy editing and documentary-like framing device that trespasses on emotionally charged ground, but it certainly makes the bulky script go down easier. As the film glimpses into the past and future of these characters, the title cards marking each day that ticks closer to the show’s next episode are all that keep the main narrative moving towards an ending rather than meandering in its own promise. The phony talking head interviews interrupt scenes with reverent, nearly starry-eyed exposition telling about our characters where we should be getting to know them by their actions. Sorkin still manages to make it all interesting, partially through his usual witticisms (like a proposition that Lucy and Desi spent every moment together “tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off.” Mostly though, we keep watching because if the film had consisted of the interviewees reciting fun facts about the couple it would still be entertaining enough for at least 90 minutes; remember that America used to tune in for 20 every week just to see them.
Thematically, Sorkin’s direction acts as a complete blender that confuses many of the script’s messages. “Back then it wasn’t much worse than being a Republican,” Lucy says of communism coolly in a simple stagnant stoic medium shot. But then in a fight between Desi and Lucy in the former’s office, Desi’s speech decrying the effect of capitalism on Cuba is emphasized through low angled shots and subtle editing that seemingly indicates the film siding with his politics. Similarly, a plotline in which Lucy’s costar Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) complains about how her character is seen as unattractive concludes, not with her own words, but with a male costar, William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), relating to her plight. He indicates that as a man it’s just as awful to be teased for being old as being ugly is for a woman. These lines could appear as simply an end to the antagonistic relationship between the characters as they empathize over their shared lack of spotlight, but instead Sorkin chooses a wide shot for Simmons, with glorious lens flares that makes Frawley’s lines seem much more important than Vivian’s, and thus gives the illusion that the male costar’s burden is deeper than hers. In a film about a woman overcoming the gender norms of her time in some ways and losing that battle in others, this moment is a lightning rod for the wrong kind of viewpoint.
Direction rather than writing is thus Sorkin’s downfall. Beats so small they are imperceptible to the director’s eye escape him and form a whole that seems more occupied with exploring every bit of meat on the I Love Lucy bone rather than making a meal out of one of the many social themes it portions out. As a script, Being the Ricardos could have been functional in this manner, but its direction puts the emphasis on the wrong syllables and creates seemingly unintentional meanings that miss the mark of who these characters are. The master writer cannot shoot his own dialogue. And thus the cinematographic choices he makes when the actors have their mouths closed then seem so blunt in comparison that the maternal urge emerges to pat the writer on the head for executing the lowest effort visuals. “Yes Aaron, we see the stage lights are forming a cage because the character feels trapped. That’s very good. Why don’t we put that shot on the fridge and you can go back to playing with your keyboard instead of your camera?”
Being the Ricardos is a victim of misinterpretation through filmmaker too quick to show off his tricks rather than focus on his story and characters. Clearly, Sorkin has an extreme amount of respect, if not affection, for the subtle things that Lucille Ball did to make I Love Lucy into a national success. What a shame he cannot replicate that subtlety for his own work.