Lucille Ball and the hard work of comedy

B drama about comedy
Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin

You’ve probably heard the saying “Death is easy; comedy is hard.” In Being the Ricardos, writer/director Aaron Sorkin shows you just what that means (but not often enough). Going back to the early days of television, Sorkin shows the sweat in making comedy in the 1950’s biggest situation comedy, I Love Lucy.

I’m not an expert on I Love Lucy. I’ve seen a few reruns over my life, and usually found them funny. Nor have I read about the making of the show. I’m pointing this out because I came into Sorkin’s film knowing very little about the famous sitcom and its stars: Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.

Sorkin pretends that three actual disasters happened in one week. Two of them could have killed the show. First, Ball was caught up in the red scare. Back then, being called a Communist could destroy even the most popular career. She managed to get out without a scratch. Second disaster: Ball was carrying a child, and a visibly pregnant stomach was worse than a Communist. It was an absolute no-no and couldn’t be hid. But Ball and Arnaz stuck to their guns and a pregnant actress played a pregnant character for the first time.

The third disaster was probably a common but difficult one. Ball doesn’t like the script. She’s upset about a routine she doesn’t think is funny or believable enough. At one point, she brings supporting actors Vivian Vance and William Frawley (played by Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons) to the studio in the wee morning of the hours to work out the timing.

Not everything is set in that one, very busy and fictitious week. Flashbacks show how Ball and Arnaz came together and got the show on the ground. They met and fell in love while working in the RKO musical Too Many Girls. They struggled. There wasn’t much call for Latin leading men. And Hollywood executives didn’t know how to deal with a beautiful woman with a knack for business and a better knack for physical comedy. When she hit TV, I Love Lucy became the country’s big hit.

Sorkin found two excellent stars to play the leads with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem – especially Kidman. She only occasionally looks like Ball, but she got the voice perfectly, and the comedy. This is not Ball the ditzy housewife, but the hard-charging head of a successful TV show. Bardem doesn’t look much like Arnaz, but he nevertheless fits the part.

The film has two serious problems: Sometimes, you’re not sure if what you’re watching is what’s happening in that very busy week, or a flashback from something else. More problematic: There are very few laughs in this drama about comedy. If you’re watching a movie about a great comedian, you’d expect to laugh occasionally. There was a little of that, but not much.

Being the Ricardos opens Friday, December 10, in a whole lot of Bay Area theaters.