When I first saw that Javier Bardem had been cast as Desi Arnaz in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, I groaned. When I heard Bardem’s “Cuban” accent in the trailer (on the couple of words he got to speak), I had to laugh. And when I finally saw him in the movie, I felt my late abuelo’s favorite refrain rattling around deep in my soul: ¡Qué barbaridad!
Being the Ricardos explores the behind-the-scenes reality of I Love Lucy during one of its most tumultuous periods, when Lucille Ball found herself under investigation as a possible communist. The film digs into some of the tensions that underpinned the show throughout its run—including Ball’s relentless suspicion of her husband’s infidelity and the rumored tensions between Ball and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz.
As interested as Being the Ricardos seems in expressing just what was so difficult about being Lucy, however, it’s far less interested in her other half. Nicole Kidman’s uncanny redhead might insist that her husband is “no one’s second banana,” but you wouldn’t know it from the film itself, which functions largely as a Ball biopic and mistakes paying lip service to Arnaz’s talents for actually capturing them on screen. Sorkin, you’ve got some ’splaining to do.
Being the Ricardos’ missteps in portraying Arnaz wouldn’t feel as egregious if the film didn’t seem so smug for pointing out the discrimination he faced while he was alive. A frequent complaint about Sorkin’s work can be the self-satisfaction of his dialogue, and there’s plenty to be found here. But casting a Spaniard to play a Cuban in a film that literally features a scene about how the two identities are not interchangeable might actually constitute a previously uncharted level of gringo fuckery.
Toward the end, we observe a flashback in which Kidman schools a roomful of studio executives about her husband’s credentials to play her TV husband. (They’d initially wanted Richard Denning, who played her husband on the radio show that became I Love Lucy; Ball famously insisted that they cast Desi so that the couple could spend more time together.) When one of the men tells Lucy that she, an all-American girl, cannot be with a “Spanish” man, she corrects him.
“Desi Arnaz is a phenomenally talented man,” Lucy says. “Not just a world-class musician, but a very good actor who would be a movie star—if there were such thing as a Cuban movie star.”
Just like an earlier scene in which Lucy mocks a roomful of stuffed suits for being so clueless about pregnancy that they didn’t know the right words to ask how far along she was, the moment feels designed to highlight both Lucy and the film’s moral superiority over the conditions of the time. It’s just hard to get excited about lines like that while watching Bardem, already a questionable choice for the role, perform his character with no specificity.
Bardem’s casting has been controversial from the beginning. Hollywood has a well-established history of hiring Spanish actors to play characters from the countries the Spaniards colonized—which wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it weren’t just one piece of the broader system of exclusion that this film claims to examine. But beyond the philosophical reasons why Bardem had no business playing Arnaz, there’s also the fact that he looks, sounds, and moves nothing like him.
It’s not that Being the Ricardos should have cast a Desi clone. In spite of all the Twitter snark that erupted when Nicole Kidman’s casting first broke, she taps into the wry, mischievous energy that made Ball such a joy to watch both on screen and off. But Bardem seems to have no idea what made Arnaz so appealing—and even if he does, the script provides few opportunities to explore that question anyway.
It’s not just that Bardem can’t mimic a Cuban accent to save his life. (He can’t.) Or that his voice is too raspy, too relaxed. (It is.) Or that he never quite figures out how to move his body like Arnaz. (He doesn’t.) The problem is the whole package—an actor floundering in a role he was never fit to play, because despite the grand speeches about the value of diversity that surface at awards shows each year, most Hollywood luminaries still can’t tell the difference between a Javier Bardem and a Desi Arnaz.
That vague understanding of Arnaz, both the person and the performer, hamstrings Being the Ricardos’ exploration of Lucy and Desi as a couple. Sorkin struggles most with intimate moments and offers little insight into the couple’s relationship when they weren’t playing Lucy and Ricky. Was their real-life connection intellectual, sexual, emotional? How did they view their career struggles in relation to one another, and did that breed resentment? The film seems only nominally interested in these questions.
Instead, Sorkin focuses on the tension between Lucy and Desi over the dreaded “second banana” issue. Both were ambitious, and both saw their careers limited by their white male-dominated industry. But while viewers spend plenty of time observing Lucy’s genius at work—from her ability to block scenes in her head to her dry digs at the men above her—Desi’s talent as a businessman never lands with as much impact. (Partially because negotiations with studio heads are less than riveting, and partially because Bardem plays them so joylessly.) Bardem’s musical performances fall similarly flat; everyone in those scenes, especially the trumpet players, needed to kick the energy up several notches.
Perhaps the greatest sin of all: We never actually see Bardem playing Desi playing Ricky in any substantive way. From Being the Ricardos, one might assume that Desi Arnaz was not much of a performer at all. If he were, why not include even a moment of that over, say, one of the numerous scenes in which various characters argue over whether or not Lucy can be pregnant on screen? Never mind that Arnaz was, himself, a masterful physical comedian whose bug-eyed expressions are just as unforgettable as Ball’s. (At least to this longtime I Love Lucy fan who had a major crush on him as a child.)
Sorkin clearly knows that Arnaz was a talent in his own right. In one scene, Kidman offers proof that her husband is no one’s No. 2: On top of basically running the show from behind the scenes, she says, “he’s killing at the table read” while it takes her days to get a laugh. If only we saw what that looked like.
One could argue that as, essentially, a Lucille Ball biopic, it’s unrealistic to expect Sorkin’s film to ruminate for too long on her husband. But the issue is less about screen time than it is about getting it right. It’s just hard to imagine how Sorkin can explore Being the Ricardos without understanding what it was actually like being Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.