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On the Basis of Sex Movie Review

On the Basis of Sex (2018) movie poster On the Basis of Sex

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2018 / Running Time: 120 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Mimi Leder / Writer: Daniel Stiepleman

Cast: Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Armie Hammer (Martin Ginsburg), Justin Theroux (Mel Wulf), Sam Waterston (Erwin Griswold), Kathy Bates (Dorothy Kenyon), Cailee Spaeny (Jane Ginsburg), Jack Reynor (Jim Bozarth), Stephen Root (Professor Brown), Chris Mulkey (Charles Moritz), Gary Werntz (Judge Doyle), Francis Xavier McCarthy (Judge Daughterty), Ben Carlson (Judge Holloway), Ronald Guttman (Gerald Gunther), Wendy Crewson (Harriet Griswold), John Ralston (Tom Miller)


One of this year's best-attended and most beloved documentaries, RBG celebrated the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now, mere months after that film's formidable run ended, we get a Hollywood biopic of Ginsburg.

On the Basis of Sex, whose blush-inducing title seems entirely at odds with its primary demographic, focuses on Ginsburg's fight against gender discrimination. We open in 1956,
when Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of just nine women in her class at Harvard Law School. At the time, Harvard even accepting women in higher education is considered progressive, but the school has a long ways to go, as evidenced by the dinner event in which the school's dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) has the female students introduce themselves and explain why they took spots that could have gone to men.

Ginsburg's time at Harvard is complicated by a cancer scare experienced by her strapping, supportive husband Martin (Armie Hammer), himself a student one year ahead of her. After he beats the odds, the couple and their young daughter move to New York for Martin's job in tax law, prompting Ruth to transfer to Columbia Law School. Upon graduating, no firm will hire Ruth as a lawyer, so she settles for teaching the law, especially in relation to gender studies, to the increasingly woke next generation.

"On the Basis of Sex" stars Felicity Jones as trailblazing lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the early 1970s, Ruth finds the case she hopes can be the springboard for eliminating all kinds of unconstitutional laws that discriminate, ahem, on the basis of sex. It involves an aging lifelong bachelor (Chris Mulkey) who has been denied a tax deduction for caregiving expenses for his sick mother because he is an unmarried male. It seems an unlikely entry point to try to topple sexist laws that have existed and been accepted for hundreds of years, but Ruth devotes herself to it, with her husband and the American Civil Liberties Union both pitching in to help the cause.

The pitch by industry outsider and first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman couldn't have been much more than four words "Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic."
As evidenced by RBG's warm reception, Ginsburg is a legend. She's like Betty White in a French robe and lace collar. She is beloved for her liberal views, influential advocacy, and notable opinions. We don't see much of that here, since the movie chooses to focus on the 1970s and this one particular case designed to trigger a long line of dominoes to fall.

After nearly two decades in television, director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward) returns to the big screen here. It seems most appropriate that a woman would be the one to tell Ginsburg's story. Unfortunately, Leder takes a very standard, by-the-numbers approach to the material. The depictions of Ginsburg's marriage, family, and professional obstacles all feel like they're being written by someone who's watched a number of serviceable biopics. The film improves some by its end when it has one specific case to focus on and Jones gets a big courtroom monologue that is both inevitable and the first moment that truly resonates in a dramatic way.

The tall Martin (Armie Hammer) stands by his wife Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) literally and metaphorically. Ruth (Felicity Jones) brings a case of potentially great influence to ACLU director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux).

Apart from that climax, On the Basis remains merely watchable, giving you some recent history and perspective on women's rights movements without much grace or subtlety. Ginsburg's daughter Jane grows up to be a teenager (Cailee Spaeny) even more woke than her mother and has to lecture Mom to maternal delight and quite possibly your own silent groans. Kathy Bates and Justin Theroux seize opportunities to inject a little welcome personality to the proceedings, chewing up scenes as pioneering lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and flamboyant ACLU legal director Mel Wulf, respectively. The opposing side, that dastardly privilege-protecting patriarchy, is represented by a couple of good ole Harvard boys (Waterston and Stephen Root) and a young lawyer (Jack Reynor) you suspect will be prominent in the inevitable Blu-ray and DVD deleted scenes section.

On the Basis of Sex would seem to be a timely project, based on both the real Ginsburg's iconic status and the enduring fact that women remain marginalized creatively in the film industry. But timeliness cannot compensate for the pedestrian, suprisingly unmoving presentation.

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Reviewed December 20, 2018.

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