‘On the Basis of Sex’ Review

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the unkillable Supreme Court Justice, is brought to life in this light biopic that follows her path from law student to professor, eventually leading to the federal court case in which she argued the constitutionality of law enforcing gender roles and discrimination. Her story has interesting facets that I learned throughout the course of this film, but it was told with little sense of rhythm making the experience rather unbalanced. 

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a Harvard Law lecture hall.

To start, her life story is interesting and a great jumping off point. Without spoiling too much, her Harvard Law years, early teaching career, and up until the climactic court case are all substantial story points. RBG faces challenges everywhere, from the blatantly sexist Harvard Lawmen to the more latent dismissive nature of the ACLU, putting on display aspects of sexism that aren’t completely obvious to anyone who is not a woman. Even at home, she faces conflict, specifically from her daughter: a young, liberated feminist who hates how Ruth seems to have submitted to powers that be by taking a university job instead of pursuing a career at a law firm. The makings of a great drama are all there, yet the interest is sucked out for a more feel-good type of story. This film is not one for nuance as everything hits you with a surface level intention but no real depth. It’s a morally simplistic movie, with an obvious winner, loser, and ending. The point of seeing it is not the ending but rather the fun along the way.

As far as acting goes, the chemistry between Armie Hammer, Felicity Jones, and Justin Theroux is fantastic. Jones does a good job on her own as the young RBG; but working with Hammer, the suave and sweet Marty Ginsburg, and Theroux, the light-hearted and over-worked head of the ACLU, Mel Wulf, the scene gains some banter that make it so much more entertaining to watch. RBG’s daughter can be annoying yet wildly vicious sometimes, but she has her relatable moments (big props to Cailee Spaeny for bringing this to a character that could be easily interpreted as whiny, rather than liberated). The characters hanging out together, working on the briefs and cases, is actually exciting to watch because of the character dynamics that are so well done above the paperwork. The tone in this film is rock solid because of the sometimes dramatic and more often light scenes that the characters share together to carry the story forward.

Marty (Armie Hammer) encouraging Ruth (Jones) before the third act.

Furthermore, for a film about a law student and future Associate Justice, there are not too many courtroom scenes. It primarily focuses in on RBG and her struggle, before finally taking a case and heading to a trial. While I appreciate the approach, this is where the film starts to lose it’s interest. With a cast that works well together and a solid foundation for a light-hearted bio-drama, the central conflict of the film was unsure until about halfway through the film. Big, life-altering events in RBG’s life are footnotes while insignificant details are blown to long drawn out periods of the film. Minor spoilers (they’re within the first half hour): Marty has testicular cancer, and it is set up to be a reoccurring event or at least passingly referenced, but it is explained in one scene and referenced in only one other scene – besides that, it has no bearing on the plot. A milestone for this young couple’s marriage is whisked off to maybe five minutes of screen time. The filmmakers didn’t want to include cancer but felt it was too big to exclude, so they didn’t commit either way, leaving us with this strange half-plot in the film. And while they leave cancer with little time, moments like Wulf’s strange introduction go on for way too long. The pacing never sits and chugs along comfortably, it instead decides to swerve and stutter at every turn.

Ruth (Jones) and her daughter (Spaeny).

Visually, and I am not sure if it was the theater I saw it at or the film itself, it was such a poorly framed movie. I’m going to give the film the benefit of the doubt and not worry too much about it, but if it was the film, then it’s easily one of the worst framed films I have ever seen.

This film is not going to win any Oscars nor will I remember it by the next month. If you are looking for a fun time and a feminist victory, then this film does exactly that – nothing more and nothing less. There is snappy dialogue, fun banter, and a climactic courtroom scene that actually packs some punch. There are definite problems with the film, but they won’t stop the average viewer from enjoying themselves and not thinking about it too hard.

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