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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Being the Ricardos’ brings love, marriage, and feminine mystique to the big screen

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the famous couple behind TV’s ‘I Love Lucy’

Nicole Kidman, as Lucille Ball, and Javier Bardem, as Desi Arnaz, in "Being the Ricardos."Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

How many people today recognize the names “Lucy and Ricky” or the title “I Love Lucy”? Seventy years ago, how many didn’t? On Mondays at 9 p.m. 60 million people would tune into the CBS sitcom, which starred Lucille Ball as pyrotechnically antic housewife Lucy Ricardo, and her real-life spouse, Desi Arnaz, as Lucy’s Cuban bandleader husband, Ricky Ricardo.

This isn’t exactly conventional biopic material. That’s all right, since the movie Aaron Sorkin has made about them, “Being the Ricardos,” isn’t exactly a conventional biopic. This should come as no surprise, since Sorkin wrote and directed. Having gone back in time last year, for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” he now goes a little further, from the late ‘60s to the early ‘50s. Sorkin being Sorkin, there’s a political angle here, too, but leave that be for now.

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From left: Javier Bardem, Christopher Denham, Nina Arianda, J.K. Simmons, and Nicole Kidman in "Being the Ricardos."Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

The unconventionality begins with the casting. Nicole Kidman, who plays Lucy, is no stranger to real-life roles. Most recently, she played the Fox News broadcaster Gretchen Carlson, in “Bombshell” (2019); and she won an Oscar as Virginial Woolf, in “The Hours” (2002). That one seemed like a stretch, but Kidman made it work. This is an even bigger stretch — Mrs. Dalloway? hey, meet Mrs. Ricardo — and in a very different direction. Doesn’t matter: Kidman makes this work, too. Boy, does she get the smokiness of Ball’s voice. And in the black-and-white that’s used for scenes from the sitcom the physical resemblance is uncanny. It’s Kidman playing one Lucy as that Lucy plays another.

Bardem doesn’t look much like Arnaz. He lacks the haggardness or vague air of desperation, qualities that being married to Lucy, onscreen and off, might produce. But that’s not a problem, since what Bardem does convey, and it matters a lot more, is Arnaz’s babalu gusto and coiled-spring alertness. “That man, believe me, is nobody’s second banana,” Lucy says. Bardem makes it easy to believe her.

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Most of all, this Desi and Lucy have the chemistry that they did on the small screen and which, by all accounts, they also shared in real life. Maybe volatility would be a better word than chemistry. As one of the show’s writers says, “They were either tearing each other’s head off or each other’s clothes.”

Nicole Kidman, as Lucille Ball, in "Being the Ricardos."Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Fred and Ethel are here, too, of course. They’re the Ricardos’ neighbors, the Mertzes. William Frawley and Vivian Vance played them on the show. J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play the actors in the movie. Both are fine (Simmons is splendidly sour), even if they lack the dowdiness of their real-life counterparts, which worked to make Lucy and Desi seem all the more vivid. Not that vividness is a problem here.

The movie’s unconventionality extends to structure. The narrative takes place day-by-day during one week in 1952, but with all sorts of flashbacks — Bardem gets to sing in a nightclub scene! — and bits from “I Love Lucy” episodes. It gets even trickier, because the writers and producer who are characters in 1952 are also characters (played by different actors) doing talking-head interviews about the show decades later. This makes for an informatively stereophonic effect, though for anyone not quite sure who Ball and Arnaz were, which would be most anyone much under 60, some version of echo-location might come in handy.

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Sorkin has folded into this week several actual events that occurred at different times: the news about Lucy having her second child (Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. are executive producers); revelations about Desi’s infidelity and drinking; and allegations that Lucy was once a communist. Wait, America’s most famous and beloved redhead was a Red? You can see the possibilities, dramatic and otherwise. As the week proceeds — table read, blocking rehearsal, camera blocking, dress rehearsal, filming, and lots of meetings along the way — the pressure builds.

Javier Bardem, as Desi Arnaz, in "Being the Ricardos."Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Like the title characters and the performances that go with them, “Being the Ricardos” has real zip. It’s a virtue of Sorkin’s tendency to glibness. His writing can be irritatingly slick, but never boring. His love of this world is part of the pleasure. There’s a scene at Ciro’s. Names like Gracie Allen and Moss Hart keep popping up.

Whenever the movie gets away from the TV-production stuff it works less well. Also, the longer it goes on, the talkier it gets; and with Sorkin keeping so many balls in the air, it’s inevitable that some don’t stay up there. The ending’s pretty phony baloney, though the honeyed light with which the movie’s mostly shot should have been fair warning.

What makes the conclusion disappointing is how unsentimental so much of what precedes it has been. Sorkin recognizes that Lucille Ball is a great character: smart, tough (make that very tough), often angry, but also vulnerable and tender at unexpected moments. “You know,” she says, “I did this show so Desi and I could be together. I had no idea it was going to be a hit. I just thought the construction department will build us an apartment where we could be together.”

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Lucy Ricardo was the feminine mystique trapped inside a pinball machine, caricature on a genius level. Lucille Ball — notice she’s never referred to by a diminutive — was the genius behind it.

Nicole Kidman, as Lucille Ball, and Javier Bardem, as Desi Arnaz, in "Being the Ricardos."Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

★★★

BEING THE RICARDOS

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J. Simmons, Nina Arianda. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Dedham Community, suburbs; starts streaming on Amazon Prime Dec. 21. 125 minutes. R (language — there’s smoking, too, but, come on, an R this is not)


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.