On the Basis of Sex

Watch the current Reeling broadcast here!
(Previous editions of Reeling can be downloaded from Vimeo by clicking this link.)

  On the Basis of Sex

In 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one of only nine women allowed to enroll in that bastion of white male dominance, Harvard Law School, and there were about 500 men in that class. Her fight for acceptance in this man’s world would be the first of many battles the smart and determined young woman, also a wife and mother, would face before making the case against discrimination “On the Basis of Sex.”

I was very excited at the prospect of a movie about the early adult life of one of my life’s heroes – the notorious RBG. Director Mimi Leder, long absent from feature filmmaking, has an interesting subject in my favorite Supreme Court justice, ever. But this telling of Ginsberg’s early years struggling for recognition in a man’s world felt flat and without depth.

Felicity Jones is adequate as the young RGB but, while the elements of the justice’s character and ideals are laid out, I never developed the empathy I should have for the feisty Ruth. The film marks the accomplishments and obstacles she bore to bring a case of gender discrimination – for a man, no less – to the second highest court in the land. It succeeds in laying out the events but, except for some individual scenes, I was marking time to the anticipated finale.

Armie Hammer is quite sympathetic as Ruth’s loyal, loving husband, Martin, and, throughout the film, convincingly plays her number one cheerleader and support mechanism. The rest of the cast is made up with veteran character actors, like Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates and Stephen Root, and give better than 2D performances.

I really wanted to love “On the Basis of Sex” but I only liked it. I think a more mature actress playing RBG may have fared better. I understand Natalie Portman was once attached to the project. That would have been interesting. I give it C+.

In the 1990s, Mimi Leder was responsible for big budget films "The Peacemaker" and "Deep Impact," but when "Pay It Forward was released in 2000, the female director was thrown into movie jail.   She's worked in television in the ensuing years, recently doing great work with HBO's trippy series 'The Leftovers.'  Now, with 2018's second cinematic treatment of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Leder returns to the big screen with an effort that feels intended for the small screen.  While it tells a great story, that of how Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) fought a patriarchal system to get her day arguing before the Supreme Court, "On the Basis of Sex" feels like a Lifetime movie.

The first screenplay from Ginsburg's nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, charts his aunt's grudging acceptance at Harvard where her professor Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson) believed female students were taking spots away from men and her insane workload when her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) battled testicular cancer (she attended law classes for both of them while also caring for a newborn).  Unable to procure a job in her chosen profession in New York City despite her prestigious degree and class ranking, Ruth was forced to teach.  Then one day she heard about a case that discriminated on the basis of sex and with the encouragement of her husband and colleague Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) staked her future as an equality crusader on it.  Ironically the person being discriminated against was a man.

While some of the scenes work, others, such as Ruth's visit to idol Dorthy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) with her rebellious teenaged daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) in tow are corny.  But the film's main problem is Jones.  With the Notorious RBG's stock never higher, any portrayal of the legendary justice is bound to come under meticulous scrutiny and Jones is never able to disappear into the role (Natalie Portman was originally cast and the missed opportunity is sorely felt).  The film's biggest asset is Hammer, charming and supportive as Ginsburg's late husband.

Grade:  C
Back To Current Show
Next Show Previous Show
Watch the current Reeling broadcast here!

Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive  | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links

Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.

MRQE Top Critic Badge