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In an industry of endless obsessive interests, there are still few subjects Hollywood finds more fascinating than itself. Often enough that self-regard pays off, in back-lot tales from Sunset Boulevard and Singin' in the Rain to Swimming With Sharks and Tropic Thunder. And writer-director Aaron Sorkin couldn't have picked a subject much riper for exploring than I Love Lucy, a show so woven into the DNA of pop culture it's surprising no one has ever seriously taken it on before.

Being the Ricardos (in theaters Dec. 10 and on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 21), alas, too often mistakes the sausage-making for the story, a drama that puts the teetering collapse of a marriage and the career-ending threat of a Red Scare on equal par with the blocking problems in a sitcom dinner scene. It also installs the austere, willowy Nicole Kidman as TV's screwball queen of comedy — a long reach that her intermittent Australian accent, and the fact that she's playing a pregnant woman at 54, don't do much to mitigate. Which is not to say that the Lucille Ball she creates on screen, both fragile and ferociously driven, doesn't have her own vivid presence, particularly when she's paired with Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz and Tony winner Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, a.k.a. Lucy's best friend and second banana Ethel Mertz.

But it asks a lot of the actors, and the viewer, to suspend that disbelief. And Sorkin strains it further with his busy nesting doll of a script: The film unfolds within a single disastrous seven-day stretch — or as Lucille dryly calls it, a "compound fracture of week" — on the Lucy set, even as it flashes back and forth between the earliest days of its central couple's real-life romance. The good news is their show is a smash hit, with 60 million people tuning in every Monday night to see what kooky shenanigans America's favorite redhead will get into next. The bad news is that gossip columnist Walter Winchell has gotten hold of some whiff of news that Ball once was and may still be a Communist. At the height of Cold War paranoia, that meant nothing less than the kiss of death, even (or especially) for a star like her. And so the damage-control panic begins, though Lucy and her costar husband have very different ideas of how to handle it, due not a little bit to the violent Cuban Revolution Desi barely escaped as a teenager, and their divergent takes on what it means to be a patriot.

There's also the fact that Lucy is expecting a baby and wants to incorporate it on air, a scandalous suggestion that the blustering Philip Morris executives who underwrite the whole thing want nowhere near a show where even the married leads sleep in separate twin beds. Those power struggles, along with the ones she's already having with her anxious executive producer (Veep's Tony Hale) and chief writers (Jake Lacy and Alia Shawkat), and her increasingly desperate attempts to find out whether Desi's been unfaithful, compete with both flashbacks of the couple's courtship and a faux-documentary framing device set somewhere near the present day.

It's a lot for a miniseries, let alone a movie, and Sorkin's choice to give so many of his stories the same weight inevitably causes pileups and plot fatigue. Ricardos has its requisite share of grand speeches and walk-and-talks, and a handful of ratatat Sorkinisms that land more than once with a satisfying snap. (When J.K. Simmons' William Frawley suggests a drink and Lucy exclaims, "It's 10 a.m.!" he serenely replies, "It's 10:15 somewhere.") Like Oscar winner Simmons, whose boozy, avuncular Frawley played Fred Mertz on Lucy, there are also no small actors in the movie's retinue: Bardem conjures a sympathetic Desi — loyal, dry-witted, and fiercely aware of how his otherness is perceived — and Shawkat and Arianda fill in the poignant details of what it meant back then to be a smart, capable woman who wasn't the star.

Kidman, though, doesn't pair her performance's shrewd emotional intelligence with a physicality that feels anything like Ball's; instead, she stays almost primly contained, like a prima ballerina being asked to pratfall. And Sorkin himself appears only vaguely interested in the particular genius of the show and what made it work: He's a CSI guy here, forensically pulling the process apart but somehow missing most of the joy of it. (The fact that professional comedians often live deeply unhilarious lives off-screen is not exactly a revelation, though a little more actual on-set comedy couldn't have hurt.) Everybody loved Lucy; being the Ricardos seems like a lonelier walk. Grade: B–

Related content:

Being the Ricardos (Movie)

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin's biopic offers a behind-the-scenes look at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz during a week of production of I Love Lucy that sees their careers and marriage put at risk.

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  • Movie
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  • Aaron Sorkin

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