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Being the Ricardos review – a slapdash betrayal of one of the funniest stars of the ’50s

Nicole Kidman is fatally miscast in Aaron Sorkin's hokey Lucille Ball biopic that seems utterly disinterested in its own characters

For a writer with such a consistent voice, the quality of Aaron Sorkin’s output has always been remarkable in its inconsistency. For every inspiring moment in The West Wing there’s a laughable one in The Newsroom, for every masterful character beat in The Social Network a stultifying monologue in Molly’s Game. In keeping with this tradition, Sorkin has followed up the old-school excellence of last year’s Trial of the Chicago 7 with the flat, creaking boredom that is Being the Ricardos, a stolidly written and poorly performed look at McCarthyism-era Hollywood where the most remarkable achievement is probably the fact that it makes Lucille Ball not at all funny.

Playing like a very special, ‘50s-set episode of Sorkin’s dreadful Studio 60, Being the Ricardos takes a variety of scandals in Lucille Ball’s (played by Nicole Kidman) life and condenses all these crises down into one very stressful week on the production – from table read to taping – of an episode of I Love Lucy. Lucille’s marriage to Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is in trouble after a gossip magazine publishes details of an affair, she’s been rumoured to be a communist, and she’s pregnant, which will make it near-impossible to shoot the show in the coming weeks. Add to this some morale and interpersonal issues amongst the cast and crew, and it’s five days of pure chaos.

The story is immediately too busy, and that’s before Sorkin adds in a series of flashbacks that make the whole film’s timeline utterly incoherent. No one problem gets enough time to be interesting, which makes the big, Sorkinian problem-solving speeches fall flat, always interrupted by one of the other ongoing calamities. J.K. Simmons gets to deliver a monologue about how to save a marriage, but all the immediately preceding scenes have been about the body-image issues of one of Lucille’s co-stars, while a big fight between Lucille and her producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) about Desi’s producer credits is undercut by the climax of the communism sub-plot.

Everything is so slapdash and poorly paced, while a pointlessly confusing faux-documentary framing device keeps interrupting the action to offer nothing of value. The result is that you’re bored almost immediately, and though the finale is ludicrous enough to prick up the ears, it’s also so stupid and misjudged that it's bound to leave a sense of irritation. Sorkin has turned comedy into an overly serious business – a Lucille Ball biopic should be raucously funny, but the only laughs here are unintentional.

This po-face from the script is matched by a cadre of performances that range from “OK” to “unfortunate.” In the lead, Kidman proves woefully miscast (the awards buzz she’s carrying for this is just baffling), stiff and stilted with very little of the real Lucy’s gift for physical comedy and while Bardem has more fun he still can’t rise that far above the miasma of mediocrity. Hale is probably the actor who escapes with the most dignity intact, bringing some air of real humanity and saddled with the fewest cringe-worthy lines.

It’s hard to think of a recent major Oscar hopeful that fails on as many levels as Being the Ricardos does outside of Bohemian Rhapsody. From script to performances to editing to direction (the blocking and lighting here are often downright amateurish), there are no saving graces. Sorkin doesn’t even seem to have a particular interest in this fascinating period of Hollywood history – compare this to, say, the Coens’ Hail Caesar, and Sorkin’s 50s LA has absolutely no sparkle or life. It’s hard to see what even drew him to the project in the first place, and even harder to see what any audience could possibly get out of the finished product.

Being the Ricardos is in UK cinemas from 10 December.

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