BRIAN VINER reviews Being The Ricardos

BRIAN VINER reviews Being The Ricardos

Nicole Kidman has a Ball as America’s darling: BRIAN VINER reviews Being The Ricardos

Being The Ricardos (15, 125 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Intelligent and enthralling 

West Side Story (12A, 156 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: A glorious ‘reimagining’ 

Sharing top billing this week are a pair of splendid films which vividly recreate Eisenhower-era America, one in the service of carefully choreographed fiction, the other a brilliant interpretation of stone-cold fact.

The latter is Being The Ricardos, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s compelling study of the relationship between Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her Cuban husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), mainly as it unfolded during one particularly tumultuous week in the run-up to a live broadcast of their hit TV show, I Love Lucy.

Now, if you have never watched I Love Lucy and don’t know much about Lucille Ball’s exalted status on U.S television in the monochrome Fifties and Sixties, Being The Ricardos may not tempt you. 

But if you recall her as one of the greatest of all TV comediennes (in an age when that gender-specific word wasn’t subject to a woke-fest of pursed lips and dark frowns), then it will enthral and delight you.

National treasure: Nicole in Being The Ricardos. How she and Desi dealt with that potentially fatal blow to her colossal popularity (60 million Americans habitually watched I Love Lucy, which ran from 1951 to 1957) is among the many strands of Being The Ricardos

As it happens, I lived in the U.S. in the mid-Eighties and became hooked on endless re-runs of I Love Lucy, in which Ball and Arnaz played bickering screen couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. It was a comforting reminder of simpler times, although actually, Sorkin’s film addresses the revelation, at the height of America’s ‘Red Scare’ paranoia, that Ball had been a member of the U.S. Communist Party.

How she and Desi dealt with that potentially fatal blow to her colossal popularity (60 million Americans habitually watched I Love Lucy, which ran from 1951 to 1957) is among the many strands of Being The Ricardos. 

Another is his marital infidelity, and yet another is the battle for creative control, as Lucy grapples with producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) in the long shadow of the Philip Morris tobacco company, powerful sponsors of the CBS show. 

Astoundingly, from a modern perspective, Philip Morris executives were dead against any reference to the screen Lucy being pregnant, as the real Lucy was, because it would ‘imply’ that Lucy and Ricky had had sex and thereby undermine the show’s wholesome innocence. Simpler times don’t always mean more sensible times.

Sorkin cleverly weaves all that together, with flashbacks to how Lucy and Desi met, and how she became the most famous woman in America. It’s ingeniously done, if slightly confusing at times, largely because there’s so much material to pack in. 

Helpfully, both Kidman and Bardem are wonderful, as are J. K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who, as every I Love Lucy fan knows, played the Ricardos’ squabbling neighbours, Fred and Ethel, and loathed each other in real life.

Kidman’s casting was not without controversy. Indeed, she has said that social media abuse made her consider quitting.

But she completely nails both the ditsy screen Lucy and, more importantly, the feisty off-screen version. It’s a superb performance, the beating heart of an intelligent, engrossing film. 

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, which I reviewed at greater length last week, is set around the same time on the opposite coast, not that I can imagine the Sharks and the Jets having much time for I Love Lucy.

It’s not quite a re-make of the classic 1961 film, the most Oscar-festooned screen musical of all time, but what Spielberg calls a ‘re-imagining’. Well, all hail the powers of his re-imagination because it’s absolutely terrific.

There are amended lyrics here and there to suit today’s sensibilities, but on the whole, the genius of composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and, for that matter, Spielberg himself, are all conspicuously on display. The casting, with one exception (Ansel Elgort, a little under-powered as the swooningly romantic Tony), is spot on.

West Side glory with Ariana DeBose. It’s not quite a re-make of the classic 1961 film, the most Oscar-festooned screen musical of all time, but what Spielberg calls a ‘re-imagining’

Rachel Zegler, the newcomer plucked out of a New Jersey high school to play the female lead, Maria, is charming and sings like an angel. Ariana DeBose is wonderful as the other main female character, Anita. 

And it’s a real treat to see Rita Moreno, the original screen Anita, in a new part as the elderly widow who runs the local drug store. 

Otherwise the story, inspired by Romeo And Juliet, unfolds in familiar fashion, as Tony and Maria fall hopelessly in love despite the escalating tension between the Puerto Rican Sharks and white American Jets, one gang run by her brother, the other by Tony’s best friend.

And it is all powerfully underpinned by the dispiriting but inescapable fact that the issues simmering in West Side Story 60 years ago — racism, social upheaval, juvenile delinquency, knife crime — are, if anything, even more relevant today.

Both films are in cinemas now. Being The Ricardos is on Amazon Prime Video from December 21.

A comet’s a comin’ in this funny and starry satire

Don’t Look Up (15, 138 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Big hitters with plenty of impact

Aptly enough for a film about celestial activity, this satirical black comedy from writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Vice, The Big Short) is almost distractingly starry.

The cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Sir Mark Rylance and Timothée Chalamet, an A-list bunch by any measure.

DiCaprio and Lawrence play astronomers Dr Randall Mindy and Dr Kate Dibiasky who discover a comet on a collision course with Earth bigger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. With just over six months before the big bang, America divides broadly into two groups: those who know Armageddon is coming and ‘impact-deniers’.

The deniers are given succour by the dim-witted, image-obsessed U.S. President (Streep), more concerned with how the crisis might help her win the mid-term elections and by a global media titan (Rylance), who feels sure he has the technology to knock the pesky comet off course and, even more excitingly, to extract the $140 trillion worth of rare minerals inside it.

Aptly enough for a film about celestial activity, this satirical black comedy from writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Vice, The Big Short) is almost distractingly starry. The cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence (pictured)

In the meantime, while Dr Dibiasky is reviled on social media for staying true to her convictions, nervy Dr Mindy becomes an improbable national celebrity (inspired, I suspect, by U.S. chief medical adviser Dr Fauci). He is even lured away from his wholesome provincial family life and into the bed of Blanchett’s vampish breakfast TV anchor (a development not, I hope, inspired by Dr Fauci).

All this is sporadically very funny indeed. At times, the comedy gets a bit too broad, maybe because there are so many targets for the satire: mad conspiracy theorists, social media influencers, breakfast TV, obsession with celebrity, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, on and on it goes (driven, it has to be said, by a conspicuously liberal agenda).

But the most cherishable treat in this film is Rylance. He plays the tycoon, Sir Peter Isherwell, as a surprisingly poor communicator (anyone who’s ever heard Sir Richard Branson umming and erring his way through a speech might have an inkling where that comes from), who is quite clearly on the autistic spectrum.

Whether that was scripted by McKay or improvised by Rylance, it is a truly priceless performance and on its own deserves to make this film about a big hit, a big hit.

Don’t Look Up is in cinemas now and on Netflix from December 24.

Also showing

Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It (12, 90 mins) 

Rating:

Citizen Ashe 

Rating:

Timed to coincide with the release of West Side Story (see above), Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It (12, 90 mins) is a fascinating study of a remarkable woman, a true trailblazer.

Moreno herself, astonishingly spry and beautiful at almost 90, recalls her arrival in 1930s New York from Puerto Rico, her professional debut aged six, the contract with MGM at 16, being raped by her agent, the abusive relationship with Marlon Brando that led to a suicide attempt and her many career triumphs.

Not only did she inspire countless others (Gloria Estefan and Eva Longoria both pay lavish tribute), there can’t be anyone else who was there when Gene Kelly did his iconic routine in Singin’ In The Rain and also there (standing at the front next to Sammy Davis Jr) when Dr Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.

What stories. What a life.

Moreno is nothing if not a survivor which, alas, cannot be said of the subject of another worthy documentary, Citizen Ashe (no cert, 94 mins, HHHII).

African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe was only 49 when he died in 1993 after contracting the virus that causes Aids from infected blood transfusions during heart surgery.

But he, too, had a compelling life story. Even though it began in segregated Richmond, Virginia, Ashe declined to rail loudly against racial discrimination. That wasn’t his style.

Instead, he let his ‘tennis do the talking’, prompting unfair ‘Uncle Tom’ accusations from black militants, but later became a potent, dignified campaigner for Aids awareness.

He was a fine man and fully deserving of this admiring film.

Both films are available on digital platforms.

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