So, with Aaron Sorkin’s new film “Being the Ricardos,” let’s just start with the obvious: Nicole Kidman is a strange choice to play comedy icon Lucille Ball. She’s too tall, too old (during the time period in which the movie is set, Ball was about 40; Kidman is 54) and in her roles generally projects a whispery fragility that doesn’t seem to suit Ball in the slightest. (Was Debra Messing even considered?) But sometimes, miscasting can be very interesting, in the hands of an actor who knows what she’s doing — and Kidman is definitely that. Here, she creates a nuanced and believable version of Ball (and of “Lucy,” the character Ball played on her sitcom “I Love Lucy,” though we don’t see much of her), meticulously introducing us to a serious, thoughtful woman obsessed with the details of comedy, who understood what it meant to have power at a time when few women did.
Sorkin sets “Being the Ricardos” during a one-week period in the mid-1950s, as an episode of “I Love Lucy” is being rehearsed and filmed while storms brew off the set: a looming accusation that Ball registered as a member of the Communist Party; marital trouble between Ball and her on- and off-screen spouse, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem); worries of how to bring up the topic of Ball’s real-life pregnancy with the show’s conservative sponsor; feuds with hostile castmate William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who played neighbor Fred Mertz. (Not all of these things literally happened during a week in real life; Sorkin has spoken of taking some artistic license.) As the “I Love Lucy” episode takes shape, we’re shown numerous flashbacks: Lucy meeting Desi, Lucy losing her RKO contract, Lucy finding her way into her own show.
Sorkin zips us rapidly through all of this, giving the film a nostalgic prettiness (even a dive bar is a vision); it feels artificial yet comfortably so, the way Kidman’s elaborate makeup both looks fake and like what we imagine when we think of ‘50s stars. “Being the Ricardos” is at heart an examination of Ball’s duality: the person she was in real life vs. the person so many remember her for playing, Lucille vs. Lucy. And it’s an interesting peg to hang a movie on, though you wish it had a little more to it; Sorkin gets too busy shuffling from scene to scene to spend enough time with any of the subplots or characters. Bardem’s Desi, for example, isn’t much more than charm. There’s a compelling scene with Ball and Nina Arianda’s Vivian Vance, in which Lucy tells Vivian she shouldn’t lose weight as viewers want to see women who look like them, and it makes you wish the complicated relationship between these two might have had its own movie.
“I care about what works. I care about what’s funny,” Kidman’s Lucy says, late in the film, and she’s dead serious, with a voice that sounds like cigarettes and weariness and determination and exactly like Lucille Ball — at least, it does by this point, because Kidman’s made us believe. It’s a miscasting, but it’s a reminder — as is “Being the Ricardos” — that acting is about hard work and careful study, however effortless the end result may appear.