Review: Being the Ricardos

Early on in Being the Ricardos the cast and crew of I Love Lucy are assembled for a table read of an episode of the show. It’s sometime in 1952. Something is off, they can’t land the jokes. Is it the writing? The actors? The film takes a jump into Lucille Ball’s head. She starts to imagine the show alive. And with that she’s able to pinpoint what’s off and of course fix it. This must be a film about Ball’s creative process? Alas that was a brief interlude, though it’s repeated a couple more times, how Ball (Nicole Kidman) creates or how her show is conceived are not top of mind for writer/director Aaron Sorkin. Instead he’s concerned with Ball being accused of communism, of how the show deals with her second pregnancy and if her husband and creative partner Desi Arnaz Jr (Javier Bardem) is faithful in their marriage.

The film takes place during one production week of I Love Lucy, or as the logline puts it “from Monday table read through Friday audience taping.” Somewhat entertaining, Being the Ricardos plays well as a behind the scenes look at I Love Lucy. Then it starts cramming a few too many plots into its “one week with Lucy” premise. The aforementioned fractured marriage even comes replete with flashbacks about how they met and fell in love. The second pregnancy subplot comes with stock characters representing the network and advertisers. We will deal with Lucy’s involvement with HUAC – The House Committee on Un-American Activities – later in this review. All seemingly interesting subplots. However each is peripherally introduced, quickly dealt with and neatly resolved. There’s no nuance, no complexity to any of it. Nothing grips the audience or resonates. 

Most unforgivable from a seasoned screenwriter is an awkward framing device. Three writers from the show are shown in a present day setting introducing and commenting on the main action. This is a dramatic cop out for Sorkin. He can’t coherently bring together the different strands of his screenplay so he utilizes this lazy concept to make it make sense. 

Kidman is known for her inconsistent accents. She always sounds Australian with a Los Angeles affectation, no matter where her character is supposed to be from. Whether Russian (the recent Hulu show Nine Perfect Strangers) or American (Big Little Lies and many others throughout her career). Here the accent is good for once and she dropped her voice an octave or two to mimic Ball’s. However beyond the voice work, her performance is subdued and remains at an emotional remove. Maybe it’s because Ball is mostly shown at work; a place where emotions are checked. However when playing one of the most animated people in the history of entertainment, a little passion is called for. 

Bardem brings charm and effervescence to the film. With his performance you understand why Arnaz was a popular entertainer. Unlike Kidman. However both performances are only skin deep and do not grapple with why Lucy and Desi’s fracturced marriage endured as long as it did. We get neither the attraction nor the competitive nature of their relationship that the script is harping about.  

Kidman fares better with the sweet mentoring relationship Ball has with a writer played by Alia Shawkat. Acknowledging that even though they are from different generations and have different takes on how to use their voices as women in the workplace, they got each other’s back. Maybe more of that Sorkin.

The script is uneven and broad. This could be any workplace in the 1950s. None of the dilemmas and interactions are specific enough despite the constant name dropping. Sorkin’s dialogue cadence is also played out at this point. Why do Lucille Ball, Steve Jobs and the fictional denizens of The West Wing all speak in the same back and forth repetitive cadence? It makes all of Sorkin’s work sound the same. As a director he brings no panache and no point of view, we never get a sense of the story in the way he frames the actors. It’s just mid shot to close up to wide shot, rinse and repeat. No rhythm or sense of drama. He’s also saddled with shoddy looking CGI on Kidman and Bardem in the flashbacks as the younger Lucy and Desi.

Most unforgivable is the coda that resolves the “red scare” subplot. You may skip this if you do not want to be spoiled. Before the taping the show, Arnaz calls J Edgar Hoover to prove Ball is not a communist and then the studio audience watching literally applauds Hoover. It is such an odd note that I’m still reeling from it. The film is asking us to admire Hoover for coming to Ball’s rescue. But it raises so many questions. Did she actually need to be rescued? From what exactly? How are we supposed to feel by this resolution that implies that HUAC was actually a good thing that happened to Ball when we know – FROM HISTORY – it ruined many lives and McCarthysim became a shorthand for fear, biased accusations and unhinged governmental power. Sorkin, you got some explaining to do. 

Being the Ricardos is in theaters this Friday December 10 and on Prime Video December 21.

NYFF Review: C’mon C’mon

About the hundredth time characters in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon expressed themselves clearly and verbosely and said exactly how they were feeling at that moment, I almost lost it. Who has this clarity? Who can articulate their feelings so eloquently at every waking moment of their lives? Who are these people? They must be aliens from an alternate universe of never ending therapy sessions. These people have done the work and figured themselves out. Even the 10 year old kid. Movies are not real, I understand that. Yet this is one that wants to be taken as reality, while not realizing what a fantastical world it has built. And a false one at that.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio talk show host who’s making a documentary about what children think of the future. He’s going around the country interviewing young people when his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), asks him to take care of her child, Jesse (Woody Norman). She has to leave town to deal with the child’s father (Scoot McNairy), who’s in the grips of a manic episode. Obviously uncle and nephew will make a deep connection. Though tentatively at first, perhaps running into some misunderstandings. Yelling, tears and laughter will be involved. And if you guessed Jesse will be interviewed for his uncle’s program and make a profound statement, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Yet none of the events that happen on screen feel real. Interspersed through the main narrative are the interviews Johnny conducts with kids in LA, New York and New Orleans. I guessed we were supposed to feel the anxiety of the next generation and their hopes. I said I guessed because what was on screen was merely false platitudes that rang hollow. The exception is one young person speaking about losing faith in the adults who are supposed to help but can’t.

In flashback we see Johnny and Viv taking care of their late ailing mother. Again we are supposed to understand the enormous grief and the years of pent up frustration between the siblings. But because they keep telling us in the present how they were feeling at the time, it doesn’t make the impact Mills hopes for. The last straw for me was using the oldest trick in the book; the precocious child who asks the “difficult” questions. Boy did I roll my eyes. Cheap and teetering on insufferable.

The black and white cinematography gives the audience something nice to look at while watching what’s inherently not a cinematic story. It’s mostly people on the phone talking about their feelings. The cast acquits themselves well, especially when you consider they are tasked with being in constant open wound mode. This a more relaxed Phoenix, reminiscent of his work in Her (2013) and miles away from Joker (2019). Hoffman has to play 90% of her scenes talking into an iphone, maybe Mills is trying to make a point about how we communicate today or something. Wish he could’ve varied the technology so we could see Hoffman in more than just the one mode. Though all the actors try their hardest to bring empathy to their characters; something was missing. Like what Annette Bening was able to do in Mills’ previous film 20th Century Women (2016); add a dose of no nonsense to the saccharine proceedings.

C’mon C’mon played the Spotlight section at the 59th NewYork Film Festival and will be released on November 19th.

Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Early on in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, two fans from Baltimore on a trip to the big city, visit backstage at Cafe Society with the legendary singer (Andra Day in a star making debut performance). There’s wonder in the small talk they share, the awe they show her. She invites them to sip champagne and everyone in the room – including her entourage of husband-manger, dresser and assistant – talk about where in Baltimore they are from. We get to know what Holiday meant to Black people in America at that time; the late 1940s. And we know that she understood that and took her responsibility seriously. I smiled and settled in thinking “this is gonna be good.” Biopics rarely examine why celebrities mean so much to us. Alas it was not to be. That was it about Holiday’s giant place in Black people’s hearts in this country.

A good biopic is usually one that has a few revelatory insights about the life it’s trying to depict. Or is telling the story of a particularly interesting moment in that life. Cradle to grave biopics don’t work and filmmakers have mostly stopped making those. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks – adapting the book by Johann Hari – have that particular story they want to tell. They chose the time in Holiday’s life when the FBI was trying to frame her for narcotics because they couldn’t stop her singing the wrenching ballad Strange Fruit. That song tells the story of a lynching in vivid detail and was a rallying cry for Black people fighting for equality at that time.

Unfortunately choosing to tell this story means that the film spends a lot of its running time focusing on Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover FBI agent who framed Holiday and eventually fell in love with her. The way they carried on their affair while Holiday was touring America and trying to kick her heroin addiction could’ve made for an interesting film. But the love affair doesn’t hold the audience’s attention. We never understand why Holiday liked Fletcher, except perhaps because he lookes like Rhodes. But there’s no heat. There’s more heat in Day’s scenes with Tone Bell who plays her abusive manager / boyfriend Joe Levy.

This is such a disservice to Day who gives a wondrous and fully committed performance. Lowering her voice to mimic Holiday’s gravely talking voice and changing her singing register to perform the songs, she’s never anything less than mesmerizing. Whether she’s on stage as Holiday singing or showing us the toll of heroin and abuse on her body, she knocks it out of the park. This is one of those instances when a first time actor finds a role that fits them like a glove and immediately becomes a star with the promise of years of spellbinding performances.

In choosing to center their story around Strange Fruit, Daniels and Parks know they need to withhold the song until just the right moment. However by the time we get there we have seen so many repetitively staged and edited scenes of Holiday singing that it loses some of its heft. Still Day delivers it beautifully and ensures it doesn’t lose any of its allure giving us a moving and enthralling moment. The song is preceded by a long winding scene in which a crane camera follows Day around through the big moments from Holiday’s life that led her to Strange Fruit. It’s brilliant and I loved it and snapped to attention recognizing this as a Lee Daniels film.

Daniels is a true auteur. There’s no mistaking his recognizable stamp on any film he makes. His filmmaking thrives in chaos. You’d think a story this sweeping, a personality this hypnotizing will play to his strengths. Instead of the enthralling chaos he gave us in Precious (2009) The Paperboy (2012) or even The Butler (2013) what we get here is haphazard storytelling. Only once in a while – like the scene mentioned above – does his brilliant chaotic filmmaking appear. Some scenes are strong, some are casually tossed off as if no director was present. Day is out of this world great but some of the other performances, from good actors with proven records  – Rhodes and Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead – feel like their worst takes made it to the finished film. While others – particularly Miss Lawrence and Da’Vine Joy Randolph – benefit from playing opposite Day and conjure easy rapport with her, elevating their scenes. 

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Andra Day, and Miss Lawrence in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY

The United States vs. Billie Holiday has talent with pedigree behind it and a fascinating icon at its center, but the result is not up to par. Still I wholeheartedly recommend it because Day’s performance needs to be seen and cherished.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday will stream on Hulu starting Friday February 26th.

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