On the Basis of Sex is more compelling as a history lesson than a film, but makes for a relevant dramatization of Ginsburg's experiences all the same.
On the Basis of Sex is a biographical drama about the life and times of the groundbreaking lawyer-turned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as the second film about the U.S. cultural icon released this year, following Julie Cohen and Betsy West's documentary RBG. It's only fitting that both movies are hitting the scene in 2018, seeing as it marks the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg being appointed to the Supreme Court (after a long and decorated legal career) to begin with. And while Ginsburg's big screen memoir is far less revolutionary than the landmark figure herself, it's still a significant late-addition to this year's awards season slate. On the Basis of Sex is more compelling as a history lesson than a film, but makes for a relevant dramatization of Ginsburg's experiences all the same.
The film starts off in 1956, as Ruth (Felicity Jones) becomes one of only nine women enrolled in a new class of some 500 men at Harvard Law School. Despite being criticized by even the school's own dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), for "taking a spot that could've gone to a man" at Harvard, Ruth quickly rises to the top of her class over the years that follow. Even when her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) - a fellow Harvard Law student - faces a medical emergency, Ruth keeps the pair of them on-track to earn their law degrees, while at the same time helping to care for their infant daughter.
By the time the early '70s roll around, Ruth is a professor at Rutgers Law School who teaches about the law and gender, but has grown frustrated that she's unable to play a more active role in the struggle against legalized sexism. However, when Martin presents her with what (at a passing glance) appears to be an unremarkable case involving taxation, Ruth realizes that a victory here could set a precedent that would go against over a century of gender-based discrimination. Determined to see the case through, Ruth teams up with Martin and ACLU national legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) to bring about the change that she's already fought for years to achieve.
On the Basis of Sex is similar to last year's Marshall, in the sense that both films highlight an early career-defining case that their respective real-life protagonists (and eventual Supreme Court Justices) worked on as lawyers. The former, which was written by Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Stiepleman, is the more conventional of the pair, in the sense that it plays out as a cut-and-dried courtroom melodrama that (unlike Marshall) avoids incorporating other movie genre elements in the mix. Still, the inspirational Hollywood biopic formula remains effective when the execution is up to scratch, and On the Basis of Sex succeeds more often than not in hitting the right notes in a predicable, yet satisfying fashion. Even the film's more contrived rousing moments are more likely to inspire people to cheer Ruth on, rather than roll their eyes.
Jones is a big part of why On the Basis of Sex works in spite of its by the numbers narrative. The Oscar-nominee imbues the big screen RBG with a convincing sense of resilience (even in the face of gross male chauvinism), yet carves out room in her performance to explore Ruth's shortcomings and flaws as a person. Hammer and Theroux play equally three-dimensional characters here, as two men who are ultimately on Ruth's side, yet support and challenge her in very different ways. Waterston does a similarly nice job of making Mr. Grisworld feeling grounded, even though the Harvard Dean could've easily come off as being more of a caricature than an authentic portrayal. The same goes for Kathy Bates in her supporting role as Dorothy Kenyon, a feminist activist and lawyer whose blunt manner very much plays to the Oscar-winner's strengths as a performer.
Behind the camera, director Mimi Leder does a good job of keeping the film's pace flowing along, even though On the Basis of Sex consists largely of scenes where characters are either spouting legal jargon or debating one another (both in and out of the courtroom). The movie is equally commendable from a technical perspective, thanks to the handsome shot compositions by Leder and DP Michael Grady (who also collaborated on HBO's The Leftovers), as well as the subtle yet attractive mid-20th century fashion styes and costumes designed by Isis Mussenden (Masters of Sex). Admittedly, like its script, On the Basis of Sex can be heavy-handed when it comes to its use of reaction shots and musical cues to indicate how the audience should feel about any specific moment. At the same time, Leder has a good handle on the film's melodrama overall and knows what tone to strike during any particular sequence.
While On the Basis of Sex broaches the topics of both gender-based and race-based discrimination entrenched in the U.S. legal system, it skips over examining how the two can be interrelated and focuses much more on the former than the latter. As a result, the film ends up offering a considerate yet glossy examination of the legal issues that Ruth confronts over the course of the story here. Likewise, the movie does a commendable job of fleshing out Ruth's relationships with Martin and her daughter Jane as a teenager (Cailee Spaeny), yet its larger narrative would've benefitted from a deeper dive into the generational differences between Ruth and Jane especially. Still, the film has a meaningful message - namely, it's not enough for cultural attitudes to change if legal and institutional values don't evolve to reflect them - and while the idea might've been presented with greater nuance, it comes across pretty clear here.
Overall, On the Basis of Sex is far from a trail-blazing biopic/memoir, but it deals with subject matter that's timely as ever and offers some welcome insight into the life and times of the real RBG before she became the icon that she is today. This one isn't a must-see for those who are striving to keep up on this year's awards season frontrunners, but those in the mood for a thoughtful historical drama this winter holiday season may want to give the movie a look in theaters. Who knows: perhaps someone will see this film and be inspired to become the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg themselves.
On the Basis of Sex is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 120 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content.
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- On the Basis of Sex (2018) release date: Dec 25, 2018