6.5 out of 10
Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Root as Professor Brown
Directed by Mimi Leder
On the Basis of Sex Review:
Studios have, and always will have, their place. They are the homes of bad guys who are bad and good guys who are good and difficult fights that are almost always won, sending an audience home with good feelings about themselves and the world they live in. They are recognition that films are entertainment first and all other things second. And generally that’s fine, but as tools for investigating complex topics goes, it has its limits and On the Basis of Sex runs into all of them. Some solid performances – particularly Felicity Jones in the title role – and a timely message prop up a safe, by the numbers film.
One of the first women ever admitted to Harvard Law School, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jones) had a once in a generation legal mind and a once in a century will to power. Refusing to bow before the long history of patriarchal subjugation, Ginsburg focused her legal career on carving out rights for women and a career for herself from a civilization utterly apathetic to ever. The cornerstone to that fight was a case over a single man seeking to a tax exemption reserved for single mothers, and with it generations worth of belief in assigned gender roles. But first Ginsburg had to win the fight to have the fight …
The perfectly of the moment biopic of Justice Ginsburg also marks the return of Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) to the feature film world, after bursting onto the scene for helping to launch ER and the first DreamWorks films in the late 90s. Her background in television gave her a keen eye for characterization that never sacrificed visual style or pace. Some of that is still visible in On the Basis of Sex, but it’s not the characterization. It would be absurdly reductionist to say it’s a big-screen TV movie, but there is definitely a smallness, a myopia that reduces Sex to something less than its subject. And it infects everyone and everything, from gifted character actors like Stephen Root to great composers like Mychael Danna who shed light on so many strange sonic corridors for Peter Greenway but here produces a score so somnolent and lacking in imagination it’s difficult to even recall.
There are high points, most of them around Jones who is of course in almost every scene. Ginsburg and her husband Marty (Hammer) are far too dynamic as individuals to ignore even in their muted versions. Jones and Hammer give themselves over totally to their characters are frequently the only real thing to latch onto in a scene. Whatever else Sex may be, it is a fantastic showcase for two wonderful actors giving their all. But they’re running into a strong headwind the whole way. Just as no one really believed in Ginsburg or her argument of the case, no one seems to really believe in her story even as they attempt to do it justice.
Not content with merely showcasing the distance Ginsburg had to come to just get started on her journey, Sex makes sure we always understand what we should be feeling and who we should be rooting for, just in case there was any confusion. There is no character, particularly in the opposition, who can’t be reduced to a simpering, mustache twirling villain. Worse, there is an example of a better version of that same character in the same film, as Justin Theroux’s ACLU chairman staunchly refuses till the last minute the equate the suffering of women with other minority groups or that a woman may be the best person to speak to that suffering. The idea is to compare and contrast the internal and external opposition Ginsburg faced, but the external is so cartoonish it quickly turns to competent versus incompetent instead. And in reducing her opposition, they reduce both Ginsburg and her avatar.
Jones is doing God’s work here, but historical hagiography withstanding there is only so much one person can accomplish alone. It’s a good try and its heart is in the right place; if nothing else it proves Jones can carry almost any material. But both she and her subject deserve more.