Review: “On the Basis of Sex”

3 out of 5 stars.

At the age of 85, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is more of an influence and an inspiration than ever.  Her advocation for gender equality and her intense debates in court have turned her into an icon, especially for young people.  But “On the Basis of Sex,” a new biopic from director Mimi Leder, takes us back to the beginning of the Notorious R.B.G.’s storied career.

Felicity Jones portrays Ruth Ginsburg, who in the early 1950s is one of the few women enrolled in Harvard Law School.  The struggles that Ruth will face throughout her life and career are set up immediately: because she is a woman, she isn’t taken seriously by her professors and peers, particularly the school’s dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston).  She balances her own work along with caring for her ailing husband, fellow law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and their baby daughter Jane.  But despite graduating at the top of her class, Ruth cannot obtain a job as a lawyer in New York City because she is a woman, and settles on a teaching position.

Fast forward to the early 70s, where the bulk of the film’s conflict takes place.  Ruth is still a professor but discouraged that she was never given the opportunity to succeed while her husband has become a successful lawyer.  But everything changes when Martin approaches her with an interesting case: a tax law case, in which a man was denied a tax deduction reserved for widowed or divorced women.  Ruth sees this as an opportunity to challenge the precedents set that assume that men work while women are caregivers, and change the current system of gender discrimination.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and husband Martin (Armie Hammer)

There really isn’t anything inherently bad about this film.  The cast is solid: Jones’ accent may be uncertain, but she brings all the fire and determination we typically associate with Ginsburg to her performance.  And Hammer has good chemistry with her as Martin.  In fact, the portrayal of their relationship is one of the highlights of the movie.  Martin and Ruth support each other entirely while taking on equal responsibilities at home.  When, while still attending Harvard Law, Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth attends all his classes and types up all his assignments for him on top of her own.  Later on, when Ruth takes on the tax law case, Martin doesn’t hesitate to let her take the lead.  It’s great to see that sort of relationship on screen, while also appearing to reflect the genuine affection and support between Ruth and Martin in real life.  The supporting cast is rounded out by Justin Theroux, who plays the ACLU representative working with Ruth who we’re never really sure if we like or not; Cailee Spaeny, who plays the headstrong teenage Jane Ginsburg; and Kathy Bates, who makes a brief appearance as lawyer and civil rights activist Dorothy Kenyon.

If anything, the main flaws of “On the Basis of Sex” lie in the fact that it is a fairly stereotypical representation of one woman’s story that is anything but.  The story is equal parts inspiring and rage-inducing, as we witness the unjust discrimination Ruth is faced with.  There are clear heroes and villains.  There’s doubt and near-failure followed by a rallying speech at the last second.  The film hits all the beats that these sort of stories usually do, without offering anything to really set it apart.  It is great to see Ruth’s origin story of sorts; the film very well could have told the story of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg instead, but rather chooses to tell the story of her early and likely not as well known career.  But the film doesn’t really get at the impact she has had in the government, in the justice system, and in popular culture.  It ends just as her career is getting started; in fact, I would argue that if someone who knew absolutely nothing about Ruth Bader Ginsburg watched this film, they would leave confused about her importance and her impact.

The film makes up for a lot of that with a stunning final shot of Jones as Ginsburg climbing up the steps of the Supreme Court building, as audio clips of the real Ginsburg play in the background.  And the final parting shot is a real joy– but you’ll just have to see the film for that.  “On the Basis of Sex” isn’t an especially memorable film, but it is worth checking out– preferably as a double feature alongside last year’s acclaimed documentary “RBG,” which does at least do the already legendary Supreme Court Justice, well, justice.

Runtime: 120 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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