D: Mimi Leder / 120m
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz, Francis X. McCarthy, Ben Carlson
It’s the 1950’s, and recently married Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jones) has no intention of being a housewife. Instead, and like her husband, Martin (Hammer), she wants to be a lawyer. She attends Harvard Law School but finds herself treated poorly because of her gender. When Martin gets a job at a legal firm in New York, Ruth tries to transfer to another university, but is refused due to existing though male-centric rules. Ruth transfers anyway and comes top of her class, but when it comes to working for a law firm, no one wants to employ her because she’s a woman; in the end she takes a position as a law professor at Rutgers Law School. When Martin tells her about a tax law case his firm is dealing with, she realises that the issue – that of a male caregiver (Mulkey) being denied tax deductions because of his marital status – is a clear infringement of gender equality. Ruth takes on the case, and with the aid of the ACLU, takes it all the way to the Supreme Court…
Ah, the humble biopic… Somewhere in Hollywood, there must be a template for screenwriters to use when assembling a biography, one that they should follow almost to the letter. There will be moments of adversity, a general struggle to be recognised or achieve fame/fortune/a place in history/all three that is overcome by sheer perseverance (and a surplus of self-belief), and a number of setbacks for the main character that help them develop more as a person. All these, and more, are present and correct in On the Basis of Sex, the second of two movies released in 2018 about Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the other is a documentary, RBG). As with many movies that are “based on a true story” or “true events”, there are liberties taken with Ginsburg’s life and career, and those liberties go to ensure that the screenplay adheres to the biography template. What this means as a whole is that the movie is sleekly efficient at exploring the basics of Ginsburg’s early life and career, but horrendously awkward at making any of it look and sound like it ever happened to real people. It all looks perfectly fine and sincere, but underneath all that sincerity, the movie is as hollow as an Easter egg.
It’s a movie built almost entirely on the idea that what really happened needs to be improved on dramatically, otherwise why would anyone watch it? So Ginsburg suffers gender-based discrimination over and over again before she gets a chance to upset the legal apple cart and show her true mettle in front of a trio of male Supreme Court justices, and the audience gets to watch a series of encounters where she caves under the sexist rhetoric of pretty much every other male in the movie that’s not her husband. Of course, she comes good in the end, but the wait just isn’t worth it. Even the good work of Jones and Hammer isn’t enough to offset the predictable nature of Daniel Stiepleman’s by-the-numbers screenplay, or Leder’s equally perfunctory direction. Whether this approach to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, and her efforts to ensure legal parity for everyone truly works, will depend largely on the viewer’s acceptance of this approach, and how prepared they are to overlook the arch theatrics on display, as well as the number of dramatic clichés trotted out in order to make the movie feel as anodyne as every other big screen biography. Like RBG, the movie makes use of the famous quote by Sarah Moore Grimké: “I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Perhaps a better version would be to ask our movie makers to have more faith in their real life characters and not to assume that their idea of what should have happened is an improvement on the real thing.
Rating: 6/10 – tiresome, and with little to say that isn’t obvious or bordering on condscension, On the Basis of Sex wastes an opportunity to tell a fascinating story with verve and vigour, leaving the viewer to wade through a series of loosely connected scenes that tell a familiar story of triumph over adversity; given the importance of Ginsburg’s efforts, and the impact that they’ve had, it’s a shame that this fictionalised version of her life and early career doesn’t live up to the momentous nature of what she achieved.