On the Basis of Sex, 2018.
Directed by Mimi Leder.
Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Ronald Guttman, John Ralston, Francis X. McCarthy, Gabrielle Graham, Angela Galuppo, and Kathy Bates
The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
While drafting the all-important briefing for the game-changing Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case, an assistant brings to the attention of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that the frequent usage of the word “sex” gives off the wrong impression to the all-male staff of judges, most of which likely can’t help but think with their lower body parts sharply turning their minds to the other definition of the word. Midconversation, they decide to change the word to “gender”, even though it means retyping the statement in its entirety. One can’t help but wonder if keeping this film titled On the Basis of Sex is some sort of humorous trap to spring on unsuspecting men hitting up the theater to check something out in hopes of getting something steamy, only to have the smackdown laid down upon them regarding a true pioneer and one of the most inspirational women to ever live (and by God, I hope she is still alive by the time this review publishes and is still kicking for a good while to come).
Directed by Mimi Leder (another case of a talented female filmmaker apparently unable to get work without nearly a decade gap in between projects) and written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s real-life nephew Daniel Stiepleman, this conventional biopic does admittedly have a safe aura; it’s procedural, formulaic, and probably slightly too optimistic for its own good. And I don’t mean that just in relation to modern-day politics, but rather the fact that such a glossy and sanitized presentation only serves to neuter the rewarding and landscape-altering accomplishments that came with taking on the law. Felicity Jones and her New York accent are serviceable bringing this actual superhero to life, as neither the script nor direction paint her as perfect from the get-go; obviously, there are struggles from competing in a male-dominated battlefield fighting to change the laws that, while definitely are with equality in mind, usually take down their perceived superiority a notch, but the film is just as interested in exploring Ruth’s nervousness and initial fails at making her compelling argument. On the Basis of Sex may come to an abrupt close, but the ending also comes at the appropriate moment, which isn’t necessarily Ruth changing the world but finding her confidence and speaking voice to achieve what many deemed impossible.
The craft on display is fine, and while the finale is richly satisfying despite its sentimentality, the first half of the film is much more enjoyable than when the proceedings lean all the way into the aforementioned case which saw discrimination against a man regarding taxes for leaving his job in order to care for his ailing mother effectively as a male help at home nurse. And not to bring my personal life into the review too much, but as someone in need of similar care due to living with a muscular disease, I must confess I have my biases and found it even easier to cheer on Ruth’s crusade for true equality. With that said, the home life of the Ginsburg family (often shown as a happily functioning household juxtaposed with scenes of out of touch elderly white men fearing for the toppling of the status quo should Ruth make waves with her fierce determination and commitment to gender equality justice) is far more interesting than watching a reenactment of history where we all know the results.
The best scenes in On the Basis of Sex come from the relationship between Ruth and her daughter Jane (played by Cailee Spaeny), a more rebellious soul interested in protesting and forward action rather than the classroom teaching and system battling from the inside her mother does. They have the same goals but don’t always see eye to eye in terms of method, making for some dynamite exchanges. There’s also a crowd-pleasing moment where Jane verbally tears a new one into some chauvinistic construction workers making advances from afar on Ruth. Unfortunately, the moment is somewhat tainted by the direction springing into some melodrama amid pouring rain, but overall, these are the bits that transcend the historical figure study into something less of a Wikipedia page.
Armie Hammer plays devoted and supportive husband Martin, but the actor’s ridiculously good looks, charm, and consistent perfection all render him more of an unrealistic fantasy than a loving human being with flaws. If you had $1 for every time he comes along and resolves a family dilemma with little ease, you could probably buy 10 more tickets to the movie. To be fair, that’s not really a bad thing as I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to force some misogynists into learning about such a wonderfully hardworking woman; maybe they can change their ways. Anyway, Martin comes across as husband wish fulfillment more than anything, although the performance is fine.
There is a great first hour in On the Basis of Sex, making it a point to follow Ruth through oppressive challenge after oppressive challenge, at one point going to school for both her and her husband after he falls ill with testicular cancer (a quick subplot played for some woefully out of place emotional manipulation and never brought up again). Her political accomplishments are up there with the best, regardless of gender, and the dynamics of the Ginsburg family household makes for a great counterpoint to just about everything the men discuss, also containing relevance to modern-day society. For whatever reason, all of that is abandoned to double-down on standard biopic storytelling and tropes. However, with a subject as fascinating as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there are worse things you can do than adhere to straight history.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com