From a pop culture perspective, 2018 was undoubtedly the year of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The slight, spright 85-year-old Supreme Court justice has become a symbol of the resistance, a liberal bastion on a court under attack by the nomination and confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh in early October. A few months prior to that saw the release of “RBG,” a documentary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West that tracked Ginsburg’s rise from a young woman into the icon she’s become today. Her mythical status was increased just last month when she suffered three broken ribs in a fall and barely missed a day of work.
To cap the Year of RBG, she’s getting the prestige biopic treatment via Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex,” which follows her early years as a professor at Rutgers and her first attempts to prove gender-based discrimination unconstitutional. Ginsburg is played by British actress Felicity Jones, opening the film as the only recognizable woman in a sea of nondescript men as she enters Harvard Law School as one of only nine women. Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) and Professor Brown (Stephen Root) don’t seem that thrilled about the idea of women walking the halls of Harvard Law, but Ginsburg’s steel-trap mind makes her excel, even while raising an infant with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), himself a third-year Harvard Law student.
When Marty takes a job in New York, Ruth departs to finish her degree at Columbia but finds it exceedingly difficult to overcome biases against her gender to get a job at any of the firms in the city. While teaching at Rutgers, Marty tells Ruth about a case where a male bachelor was denied tax benefits due to his gender, and she views it as a potential wedge to take down a litany of laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. Ruth brings her old colleague Mel (Justin Theroux) and the ACLU into the fold to fight for the cause, hoping to set off a chain of dominoes that will topple the whole system.
Leder’s agenda is clear, and she wastes no time pointing out the clear unbalance and roadblocks constantly put in Ginsburg’s way no matter what she tries to accomplish. The first act hammers this home over and over again, emphasizing every time the dean calls the students Harvard Men, eliciting a knowing smirk from Jones, who realizes what she’s getting into. It’s an almost comically combative setting, one so overt in its agenda that it doesn’t take long for the eyes to start rolling.
Jones is no stranger to these sorts of films, having performed well previously in the similar “The Theory of Everything.” She’s great at replicating Ginsburg’s tiny stature, fiery demeanor and determination. She aches to make a difference, to change the world that seems so comfortable keeping her gender in the shadows. She has the Brooklyn accent down pat for the most part though doesn’t go too far to try and ape RBG’s specific lilt (which, generally, is more of a blessing than a curse when it comes to movies like this). As her partner in both life and law, the 6’5” Hammer easily towers over her, further emphasizing the size difference. He remains a powerfully charismatic screen presence, the ease of his speech and social acumen lighting up any room he enters and setting up a mirror against Ruth’s more prickly personality. Shrewdly, the script makes them complete equals, with Marty tending to the children just as often (if not more) as Ruth does.
While the cast is roundly up to the task, sadly the task itself doesn’t amount to all that much. “On the Basis of Sex” is completely comfortable being the biopic you would expect it to be and has no interest in providing even the slightest bit of excitement. It has good points to make but is content to make those points in the least engaging way possible. All of the plot movements, whether it’s Marty’s cancer diagnosis, Ruth’s thwarted attempt to finish her studies at Columbia and still receive a degree or everything that happens in the climactic third act strictly follows the rules. The standard prejurative for movies like this is “Oscar bait,” and in the case of “On the Basis of Sex,” the shoe fits. Leder, predominantly a television director on shows like “The Leftovers” and “ER,” rarely finds an enticing hook, content to just present the material in the most perfunctory way.
For someone as outsized as Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become, “On the Basis of Sex” feels like it barely gets out of neutral, failing to live up to its subject’s personality and history. It doesn’t help that “RBG” goes overboard on that aspect of her career, treating her like the judicial rock star she is today. “On the Basis of Sex” feels staid in comparison, a movie happy to tell a pretty interesting story in a profoundly uninteresting way. Jurisprudence may not leap off the screen in the way your average superhero does in this day and age, but there are plenty of courtroom dramas that manage to do far more with their material than Mimi Leder does with Ginsburg’s first landmark case.
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterson, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Callum Shoniker
Director: Mimi Leder