Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Word Crimes:

An Aaron Sorkin screenplay comes in one of two modes: too much, and way too much. I love the former, but the latter can clang and grate and scrape across my patience. He’s such a wordy, witty writer, capable of soaring rhetoric and juicy monologues. His ear for embedding characterization in the pithiest of comebacks and most garrulous walk-and-talks is a good match for his interest in high-wire halls-of-power and behind-the-scenes tensions. His characters are often people with inflated egos or self-important positions of influence. He must understand them so well because he’s one of them. When he’s on, he’s one of our best. The too-muchness of his writing makes a perfect match for material. His The Social Network, so sharply perceptive about Facebook’s founding conflicts, balanced with beautifully clinical David Fincher direction, remains one of the finest scripts in recent memory. But when he’s off—taking his tendencies to overwrite his subtext until it spills out as just plain text like in howlingly clunky tone-deaf attempts like media-matters dramas The Newsroom or Studio 60—it curdles fast. When you’re an artist who thrives when high on your own supply, it’s easy to get way too much out of each moment.

Take last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s based on the real circus of a court case following protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention that were violently broken up by a bludgeoning police presence. A group of leading leftist activists were targeted by the newly elected Nixon administration to make an example of them. The judge ended up a loony attention seeker who made all kinds of questionable decisions—like ordering Bobby Seale, a leader in the Black Panthers, bound and gagged—while the defendants, many previously unknown to each other, often used the massive press interest in their plight as a soapbox on which to make important points about the state of the country. (They also used it as an excuse to poke prankish fun at the authorities who were in the process of overreaching.) Sorkin sees in this case good reason to comment on our present right-wing lunacies and various social movements protesting them. But he puts too much spin on the ball in each sequence. Characters are practically explaining this connection to us as monologues and jostling debates are carried out with musty pseudo-historical perspective.

Not helping matters, the flat staging from Sorkin as director tends to undercut the few good moments he’s written.With Trial he somehow can’t pull off the courtroom sparring he crafted so well as screenwriter for A Few Good Men's "you can't handle the truth," or the Social Network depositions. Here it’s self-consciously, and badly, theatrical, with a host of fine actors in full showy character mode (Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) chewing over flashy phrasing as the camera pushes plainly and shafts of light falls simply and dramatically. One wonders what a better visual sense would’ve shaped out of these lumpy scenes. But then I recall how Sorkin’s shaping of the pages pushes the real events toward big fake movie climaxes that are somehow flatter and less surprising than the actual events. Just when he builds up a head of self-righteous steam and winds up a character to let them go, it rings the falsest. The best scenes are the smallest, and the simplest, where an old pro like Keaton can underplay the overwritten and end up, on balance, just fine. Strangely, for a writer prized for his verbal pyrotechnics, the court sequences are somehow less outrageous and dramatic and hilarious and suspenseful than the actual court transcripts. Those have been used as the basis for a fine animated documentary from a dozen years back—Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10—and are available for free online. Those are the better way to experience the trial.

With that in mind, one might think the new Sorkin picture, a behind-the-scenes of I Love Lucy in a moment of high-stakes drama, would pale in comparison to simply watching the still-brilliant original episodes of the classic sitcom. Of course it does. But that’s where I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong that it wouldn’t be fun enough on its own terms. I was quite taken with Being the Ricardos for playing up the ways in which it stacks up historical conflicts into one stuffed week. Lucille Ball is accused of being a communist (which she was, once) at the heights of the Red Scare. Desi Arnaz is tagged as a philanderer (which he was) at one of many periods of peak tabloid power. And, if the sponsors or the network don’t pull the plug for either or both of those scandals, the power couple behind the program are determined to use Lucy’s real life pregnancy for her character, too. (One suit bristles at the idea that it’ll make viewers think about…you know…how that happened. They sleep in twin beds, he reminds.) That Sorkin’s invention places these tricky moments all in the same short period of time—the structure is all showbiz hustle, as the movie starts with a table read and ends with a taping—gives the movie a pressure cooker of competing interests. His script weaves in and out of the various conflicts and keeps the ensemble a plate-spinning act of worries and wants. It successfully cross-breeds the let’s-put-on-a-show zippiness with an earnest grappling with the people behind-the-scenes and What It All Meant.

Sorkin’s brand of pushy cleverness fits a great cast of actors playing performers and other creative types. Here Nicole Kidman becomes a Lucy who’s ambitious, steely, hugely talented, and knows what she wants. She is clearly in charge of the show, and really won’t back down from insisting being a Communist used to be considered a valid option for supporting the workers of the country. Javier Bardem plays Desi as a chipper man constantly tending to his ego, but with real love for Lucy. (He also doesn’t suffer fools, such as one well-meaning producer who tries to convince him he’s the “I” who “Loves Lucy” and therefore the top-billed title character.) His Cuban roots make him a bit more uncomfortable with her politics. (There Sorkin tries a smidge too much for phony both-sides balance.) The main couple is, as on the show, surrounded by a sharp-tongued supporting cast. Nina Arianda’s Ethel and J.K. Simmons’ Fred are great inhabitations with sly side-eyed commentary on, challenges to, and support for the main pair. And the show’s crew features Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg and more hustle through the stages, wardrobe department, and writing rooms. It’s a fine feat that mixes the sort of clever darting dialogue and blunt force messaging that a great cast can sell if Sorkin serves it up well.

There’s a kind of gleaming soft-focus romanticism to its approach, a weren’t-the-olden-days-grand? gloss to the sometimes-reductive smushing of so much social upheaval and conflict into one heavy week. (It spackles it over, somewhat, by having fake documentary talking heads from actors playing older versions of the writers’ room act as a Greek chorus of sorts.) And the writing sometimes tries too hard to make the ideas fit our modern context. Would Lucy really have accused someone of “Gaslighting” her? Nonetheless, it’s has the kind of fizz and pop that’s pleasing to the ear and flies by in a flash. Sorkin’s direction stays out of his writing’s way, and has a fine eye for the difference between on- and off-stage antics. I found it a satisfying and entertaining look at making a show in a time with an actual blacklist bouncing entertainers out of the business for their politics, when sexual mores were tamped down and repressed and not to be discussed, and when women and people of color weren’t to be treated as equals on or behind the screens. And yet, through making one of the greatest television comedies (who doesn’t know the chocolate factory sequence?), here’s a couple that manages to push on the edges of those societal constraints at a time when it could’ve resulted in a show going off the air. Now that’s cancel culture.

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