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‘On The Basis of Sex’ (review)

Produced by Robert W. Cort
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
Directed by Mimi Leder
Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer,
Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston,
Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny

 

When the subject matter is larger than life, it can be hard to capture the path to super stardom.

On the Basis of Sex tries to distill the monumental case that launched current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into the limelight, but in trying to showcase the origins of a woman so beloved and powerful, she becomes a glossy Hollywood can-do story that merely touches upon the many threads it pulls out.

While the actors are well-chosen to elevate an occasionally off-balance script, their best efforts still do not give them the ability to wield nuance instead of broadly telegraphed moves.

Before she was ruling in the highest court of the land, Ginsburg wore many hats: Harvard law student at the same time as her husband, dedicated mother, and university professor just to name a few.

Given that her biography released earlier this fall came in at a sizeable 752 pages, it’s surprising that writer Daniel Stiepleman decided to try and give so much background in a mere 2 hours, leaving precious little time to the actual case at hand. Yet these early glimpses tell us about how Ginsburg approached problems that would follow any smart outspoken woman of the era, such as the sexism she faced at an Ivy League that had only been admitting women for a few years at that time.

An early scene has her as the lone woman in class, and being passed over repeatedly to answer a question despite a calmly raised hand at each of the professor’s requests. She proves herself more than capable when she not only corrects another student but expounds on the reasoning behind the ruling. As RBG, Felicity Jones keeps a slow boil going throughout the film that gives a sharp tension to most encounters. You get the feeling that Ginsburg is not looking for a fight, but she is always ready for one. By her side is her charming and unerring husband Martin, played wonderfully by Armie Hammer. Through their love story (interesting enough to warrant its own film) we see a couple that stands by each other through illness, professional derision, and even in court without ever losing that feeling of total support.

Even if it seems a bit idealistic, their unflappable relationship grounds much of the movie’s more crushing moments. It is Martin, in fact, who brings Ruth the landmark 1972 gender rights case Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue where the law as written favored women caregivers and left a man unable to claim a tax credit to care for his mother. Even though the journey through law school, moving to New York, and the beginning of her teaching career is quite interesting, the case and research deserve far more time onscreen to truly learn about how this amazing litigator parsed through.

More than anything, we see her frustrations and sense of uncertainty which is woven unevenly with the small wins that encouraged her to move forward. When Ginsburg is poring over research with her students to look at all of the gender-based laws in the code or arguing in the kitchen in her daughter, the scenes that could have pleasantly stretched out to give more background are just glimpses into her world. A narrower scope would have better served the subject, but director Mimi Leder managed to keep the pacing fairly well for what she was given.

While On the Basis of Sex may not hold up to RBG, the documentary released earlier this year on Justice Ginsburg, it still has its place in the canon of work on the rise of this trailblazer.

It is a sweet and light Hollywood telling with a bit of a bite, though not quite as sharp as the woman herself.

 

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