Film Review: “On the Basis of Sex” Offers Fast-Food RBG

Film poster: “On the Basis of Sex”

On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder, 2018) 1½ out of 4 stars.

The second film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg released within the last 7 months, On the Basis of Sex opens with the usual biopic title card: “Inspired by a true story.” Both inspiration and truth, however, are very much in question. The script offers a boilerplate courtroom drama where its protagonist is mansplained into greatness. Some of it no doubt happened as portrayed, but it seems unlikely that Ginsburg, brilliant as she was, needed as much shepherding as we see here. The two leads, Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and Armie Hammer (Free Fire), as Ruth and husband Marty, are both appealing enough, with entertaining support from the likes of Justin Theroux (Mute) and Kathy Bates (Boychoir), among others, but no one can overcome the insipid blandness of the affair. Call this the fast-food version of her life, then, and expect little in the way of substance.

We start in the 1950s, with the young married couple both at Harvard Law School, hard at work in the classroom and as parents to a young child. Then Marty comes down with cancer, leaving Ruth to manage everything, including his own course load. They soldier on, he survives, and both emerge as successful graduates to face what should be a wealth of job opportunities. This being the time it was, however, Marty is the only one with any offers; most law firms then found the idea of a woman lawyer unpalatable, despite Ruth’s significant accomplishments. So, she becomes a professor at Rutgers while Marty specializes in tax law. One major ellipsis later and it’s the 1970s, with Ruth now teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law” to a group of mostly female students. She and they are ripe for change: Gloria Steinem and second-wave feminism are very much in the air.

Felicity Jones in ON THE BASIS OF SEX ©Focus Features

And that’s when good, reliable Marty shows up with the perfect tax case – one where a man was discriminated against because of his sex – and Ruth can transition from academic to activist. If only the film truly gave her her due, all would be good. Instead, though she was already 40 years old and a mother of two, Ruth comes across as an overeager teenager in need of careful grooming for the court. Yes, she eventually wins her case and sets the stage for future landmark cases to overturn sex discrimination, but how she gets there is painful to watch. Thank you, Ms. Leder, for painting one of the great jurists of the 20thcentury as a rank amateur. At least we get a nice shot of the real RBG at the end, and hear her actual voice arguing in front of the Supreme Court, but we didn’t need this film for that. You want the real deal? Check out, instead, last year’s terrific documentary RBG.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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