On The Basis Of Sex (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
People love Ruth Bader Ginsburg and this is the second film to tell her story in the last year.
One of the more buzzworthy films to land in theaters over the winter season, On The Basis Of Sex carries high expectations and delivers a crowd-pleasing movie experience.
My wife now thinks Armie Hammer is the greatest movie husband of all time.
This is a biographical drama (a/k/a biopic) which follows that formula to a T. For some, they will be frustrated by this approach.
I wish those who oppose Ginsburg’s politics would watch this and get a sense of why she is such an important… you know, nevermind, this movie largely preaches to a choir.
Felicity Jones’ portrayal (which I rather enjoyed) has more than its share of naysayers, feeling she is miscast as Justice Ginsburg.
As we learn that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is recovering from lung cancer surgery in late 2018, and will be handling the first few weeks of the current Supreme Court docket from the comfort of her home during her recovery, the second film about her life expands into theaters all across North America.
On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder, walks us through two-plus decades of Ginsburg’s steadfast determination. We open with her at Harvard Law, one of only a few female law students, advancing with her through motherhood, career setbacks, and eventually arguing the case that put her on a path towards confirmation to the highest court of the land. Ginsburg’s story is an important one, not just for liberals or young women, but for any woman who has had to fight against the rising tide of inequality and demanded that their voices be heard.
Leder’s film is a straight-up, garden variety biopic through and through. We see Ginsburg’s life play out before us, through a series of timestamps and episodic vignettes. Oscar nominee Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) steps into the role with enthusiasm and aplomb. Alongside co-star Armie Hammer, who shines as her supportive husband and lawyer Martin, Jones settles into a performance that sticks to Ginsburg’s formative years pretty accurately.
Married, a year apart from one another, but attending Harvard together, Martin falls ill with a diagnosis of testicular cancer. Unwavering, Ruth nurses her husband back to health, while completing her coursework, auditing Martin’s classes, and taking on the lion’s share of the work required in raising their infant daughter Jane.
Leder and debuting screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s nephew, incidentally) pull back from lionizing Ginsburg or making her something of a cinematic superhero. On the contrary, they simply show her putting everything she has into making her and her family succeed; a reality many women watching the film can connect with.
For all her success, and after graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg cannot land a job. Rebuffed at every turn, she fails to land jobs because she’s a woman trying to “take a spot” from a man, or she finds herself ogled and harassed during interviews. Unable to secure a job as a lawyer, Ginsburg would see her husband thrive professionally, while she resigned herself to teaching law and discrimination courses at Rutgers University.
Eventually, some 15 years after we first begin the story, Martin finds a court case which would change Ruth’s life forever. At this point, On the Basis of Sex, becomes a court-room procedural..
The case, Moritz v. Commission of Internal Revenue, involved a single man was who denied the opportunity to take a tax deduction for medical expenses he incurred as care provider for his ailing mother. At the time, single men were not permitted to take a tax deduction for such care, as the law only allowed women, or husbands caring for ailing wives, to receive the benefits.
The Ginsburgs argued that, on the basis of sex, this was discriminatory. Then, in 1972, a three-man judicial panel unanimously overturned the decision, and Ruth’s legacy was born.
We know the Ginsburg of today, and Jones’ performance lays a nice foundation for us to understand the struggle and journey she went through to become such a heralded and respected jurist. Infinitely watchable, On the Basis of Sex does so much right as a galvanizing, crowd-pleasing film, but feels too calculated and safe, too comfortable at times, attempting to please as wide a variety of viewers as possible.
At 120 minutes, despite ample opportunity for exploration, Leder’s pacing drags the film down a bit, and the movie has some excessive weight in the middle scenes, after her efforts to find a job, and prior to her landing the Moritz case.
Hammer’s turn as Martin is refreshing, a supportive husband who truly wants his wife to succeed and recognizes all the sacrifices she made for his career to grow. A spirited cast includes a cantankerous Kathy Bates as attorney and activist Dorothy Kenyon, Justin Theroux as the scattered lead counsel for the ACLU, and, in performances which come off a bit pompous and forced, Stephen Root and Sam Waterston chew up lots of scenery as misogynist men, trying to impede Ginsburg’s professional trajectory.
Though not perfectly told, the story cannot help but leave you feeling a sense of inspiration and admiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no matter what side of the aisle you align. And while I, and others, may have hoped for a more emotional connection to the film as a whole, On the Basis of Sex is a well-made, passionately told story of a woman defying the odds, finding ways to persevere, well into her 80’s, turning back those who have consistently hoped for her to fail.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Wendy Crewson, Gary Werntz, Francis X. McCarthy, Ben Carlson.
Director: Mimi Leder
Written by: Daniel Stiepleman
Release Date: December 25, 2018
Focus Features/Universal Pictures