The real-life Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a hero of the movement to remove sexual discrimination from laws in the USA. In On the Basis of Sex, Felicity Jones dons a Brooklyn accent, some 1950s era-appropriate attitude and an overly handsome husband to play the legend.
And she plays it well – once the movie gets into gear. It’s a common biopic problem, the over-egging with inessential factual detail. Here, we have to get past some origin story to get to the good stuff, where it slows down and sinks into the pivotal case of Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. The case was in fact a challenge to a law that discriminated against men, but this would provide the perfect catalyst for reform to come. Jones is appealing, as Ginsburg navigates bureaucracy and deeply-entrenched misogyny, while never being too severe or humourless.
The supporting cast is a mixed blessing. Daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) manages to be more than a plot device, but Armie Hammer as husband Martin is a bigger problem. Director Mimi Leder would have done greater service to the movie to cast someone a bit scruffier and less exuding privilege and refinement. Given that Ruth’s tax lawyer husband is already endlessly patient and attentive, the resulting man feels blandly perfect. (Of course, he may have been just like this, but this is a movie, in the end.) Finally, a top-notch roster of character actors, including Kathy Bates, Justin Theroux and Sam Waterston elevate what is at times fairly pedestrian material.
There are some effective moments here, where the writing and acting should get the credit. In a moot court, Ginsburg is tested by her colleagues for her ability to take lead counsel on the pivotal case, and the scene totally works – balancing sly wit with a subtle anxiety.
However, Leder’s direction generally feels merely serviceable and rather uninspired, though to her credit, she’s allowing the message of On the Basis of Sex to speak for itself. It stays coy about what it might be speaking to in the late twenty-teens, but we do understand that Ginsburg’s attack on misogynistic legislature was just a beginning. Having gone on to become America’s leading advocate on behalf of women’s rights, she is now serving in her 25th year as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In the closing moments of the movie we are reminded that Ginsburg’s work is not done. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel much like the baton is being passed on to the rest of us.
On the Basis of Sex is a pulled punch during a time when the “leader of the free world” is brazenly sexist. However, it is well-acted and solidly written. As a vanilla biopic, it’s astonishing that it’s not dripping in Oscar nominations.