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'Being the Ricardos' dramatizes Lucy and Desi's very complicated relationship

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Aaron Sorkin has created several TV series about people who work in television, sports news in the ABC sitcom "Sports Night," cable news in the HBO drama "Newsroom" and variety shows in the NBC drama "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip." He even mounted a Broadway drama, "The Farnsworth Invention," about the creation of television itself. And now Sorkin has a new movie about TV that he wrote and directed, which premieres this Friday in theaters and later this month on Amazon Prime Video. It's a backstage drama about the classic CBS sitcom "I Love Lucy." It's called "Being The Ricardos" and stars Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Aaron Sorkin builds his new movie "Being The Ricardos" around a very narrow and clever framing device. Rather than tell the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz chronologically - their meeting, their courtship, the creation of their sitcom and the formation of their jointly named Desilu Studio - Sorkin zeroes in on one particular week. It's the early 1950s and early in the second season of "I Love Lucy" on CBS. The sitcom is a massive hit, the most popular show on television. But a powerful gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, has just ended his Sunday night radio show with a blind item suggesting that TV's biggest female comedy star is a communist. This was when Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunt was gaining major momentum and when being called a red was the sort of allegation that could destroy a career. Lucy and Desi, played by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, meet the next morning with a CBS executive played by Clark Gregg. He's worried that the gossip item will spread to other news outlets.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEING THE RICARDOS")

CLARK GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) And nobody's picked it up?

JAVIER BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Nobody's picked up the story - not a single paper, not a single news network, including your own.

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) Maybe - maybe we're out of this. We just don't know yet.

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) When will we?

GREGG: (As Howard Wenke) If you tape the show Friday night, it means you still have a show.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) OK.

BIANCULLI: So that's the framework. We follow this particular "I Love Lucy" episode through the week, from the Monday morning table read to the Friday in-studio performance. How this public relations scandal is handled gives "Being The Ricardos" its momentum and its climax. But along the way, Sorkin also takes time to revisit the story of Lucy and Desi in entertaining flashbacks and to dramatize their very volatile and complicated relationship. And theirs is not the only fiery relationship on the "I Love Lucy" set. Their comedy co-stars William Frawley and Vivian Vance as neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz had their share of friction, too. Waiting for Lucy and Desi to arrive for the table read, they discuss the current climate of fear in Hollywood. The actors playing the second bananas are fabulous here. The grumpy Bill Frawley is played to sharp-tongued perfection by J.K. Simmons, and Vivian Vance is portrayed by Nina Arianda, who probably would have made a fabulous Lucy, but I love her Vivian.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEING THE RICARDOS")

NINA ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) Did you know Little Rusty had to sign a loyalty pledge?

J K SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) I don't know who this [expletive] Little Rusty is.

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) Rusty Hamer from "The Danny Thomas Show."

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) That's not his name.

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) It is his name.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) The littlest kid from Danny's show.

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) Yes.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) Rusty is the character's name, not the actor.

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) They're both named Rusty. Rusty Williams is played by Rusty Hamer.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) And Hamer's a communist?

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) He's 7 years old.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) And he's interested in politics?

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) No, imbecile. I'm saying he's 7 years old, and they made him sign of loyalty pledge.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) Uh-huh.

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) This is getting out of hand was my point.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) Why isn't Danny Thomas' kid named Rusty Thomas?

ARIANDA: (As Vivian Vance) Are you drunk?

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) It's 10 a.m., Vivian, so, you know, of course.

BIANCULLI: But this new movie "Being The Ricardos" isn't going to work because of how good its Fred and Ethel are. It'll work only so much as audiences accept Kidman and Bardem as Lucy and Desi. Bardem's Desi is an easier sell. But Sorkin protects Kidman by writing very few scenes in which his actress has to recreate classic Lucille Ball comedy bits or even be funny, period. Instead, this movie's Lucy spends much of her time being worried or suspicious or argumentative. And Kidman not only captures those emotions well but really nails Lucy's voice and tone. Here she is at that first table read where executive producer Jess Oppenheimer, played by Tony Hale, sets the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEING THE RICARDOS")

TONY HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) And directing this week, Donald Glass is back with us. Let's give him a hand.

(APPLAUSE)

CHRISTOPHER DENHAM: (As Donald Glass) It's good to be back.

(APPLAUSE)

HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) Act 1, interior, the Ricardo's living room, night.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Excuse me, Donald.

DENHAM: (As Donald Glass) Yes.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Good morning. I'm Lucille Ball.

DENHAM: (As Donald Glass) I sure know that, Lucy.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) I wanted to make sure because you haven't been here in a while. Is it because you've been going through puberty?

DENHAM: (As Donald Glass) I look young, yes, but I went through it a long time ago, and I haven't been here because I've been directing at "Danny Thomas."

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley) With the Communist kid.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) But you do need to know that Danny does jokes. Few people do it better. I do physical comedy.

DENHAM: (As Donald Glass) I've seen every episode of the show.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) So have 60 million other people. Are none of them professional television directors?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) She's kidding.

DENHAM: (As Donald Glass) I can tell.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) I'm hazing you a little, Donald. It's just my way of saying I have no confidence in you at all.

BIANCULLI: The biographical backstory tells some parts very well, in particular how Lucille Ball herself strong-armed CBS into hiring Desi as her "I Love Lucy" co-star. But other aspects are underplayed, like the multicamera filming system that Desi implemented, which transformed TV sitcoms from then on and also gave birth to TV reruns, which made Lucy and Desi very, very rich. Yet the one-week period that forms the core of "Being The Ricardos" makes room for them to fight not only with each other but for their professional lives and artistic visions. And because they won those creative battles, they made some very significant television history and, at the same time, some very funny episodes of TV comedy.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "Being The Ricardos." It's in theaters starting Friday and will start streaming on Amazon Prime Video later this month. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEBO VALDES' "DE BARACUTEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.