ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) is not getting much love, and that’s too bad, because this bio pic on Ruth Bader Ginsburg happens to be a really good movie.
So, what’s the scoop? Why the cold shoulder?
For starters, it’s the second film from 2018 on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, following the much better received and critically acclaimed documentary RBG (2018), and so it’s operating in the shadows of that film. Likewise, RBG received some Oscar nominations. ON THE BASIS OF SEX didn’t receive any.
Critics have been lukewarm to the film, and much of the criticism has been focused on the script which a lot of folks have called superficial, which reminds me of a lot of the same things which were originally written about HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), another outstanding film which also didn’t receive much love. Initially.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX is also not performing well at the box office. I think a big reason for this is that it had a lackluster ad campaign. I know in my neck of the woods there was barely any publicity for this film.
However, I saw the movie several weeks after its initial release, and the theater was packed, and the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it.
As did I.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens in 1956 showing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) entering Harvard Law School. From the get-go, Ginsburg experiences gender inequality, from professors who don’t call on her in class to an awkward dinner held by Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) for the female law students in which he requests that they tell him why it is that they have chosen spots at the law school that could have gone to men.
The action jumps ahead to 1970 where Ginsburg is working as a law professor because no law firm would hire her because she was a woman, in spite of the fact that she graduated at the top of her class. She lives in New York City with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), a successful tax attorney, their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) and their younger son James.
Ginsburg decides to take on the case of a man Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) who was denied a caregiver tax deduction which he filed for because he was caring for his sick mother, and he was subsequently charged because of this filing. The reason? He was a man. And the caregiver tax deduction was meant only for women because they were assumed to be the only ones who were natural caregivers. Ginsburg realizes that this is a case of gender discrimination, where the one big difference is that the victim is a man. She knows that if she can win this case, it will be a huge victory, a step towards repealing gender discrimination in other cases as well.
She takes the case, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Felicity Jones delivers a spirited performance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s certainly a potent enough performance to carry the movie, even though Jones doesn’t have to, since she receives fine support from the other actors in this one. I really enjoyed Jones in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) in which she played Jyn Erso, a film I have liked more each time I’ve seen it, and Jones’ performance in that movie remains one of its strongest attributes. She’s equally as good here as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
One of the film’s highlights is the dynamic between Ginsburg and her daughter Jane, as they share key moments together, as in when Ginsburg realizes that things her daughter is saying are things she couldn’t have said fifteen years ago, opening her eyes to the realization that the times have already changed and so it’s time for the law to catch up. There’s also the realization that the work she is doing for gender rights is for her daughter’s future, which gives her drive when things look bleak.
As such, the role of Jane is a central one in the movie, and she’s well-played by Cailee Spaeny, who was equally as memorable in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018). Spaeny also looked completely different in that movie, and she played a very different role. She’s certainly a young actress to keep your eye on.
Armie Hammer plays Ginsburg’s husband Martin, and their relationship is also central to the story. Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer while still in law school, and it’s largely Ruth’s drive to survive that helps him beat the cancer back for as long as possible. He’s also an incredibly supportive husband, and he’s one of the few males in her life who sees what she sees and constantly pushes her on to continue her work. While it’s not groundbreaking dramatic stuff, it’s one of the better performances I’ve seen Hammer give.
Justin Theroux throws in a colorful performance as ACLU director Mel Wulf, who in spite of being Ginsburg’s friend doesn’t always see things the same way she does and makes decisions which get in the way of progress.
Veteran actor Sam Waterston adds solid support as Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold. His sexist comments will be sure to rankle. Kathy Bates is also on hand, albeit briefly, as Dorothy Kenyon.
The screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, is a good one and gets the job done. It tells its story in straightforward fashion and builds to a solid climax as Ginsburg argues her case in court. The screenplay has been criticized as being “by the numbers” and superficial, but that’s not the case. Sure, in terms of legalese, the film keeps things simple, nor does the film present Ginsburg from multiple nuanced angles. She’s a straight shooter here, and the film makes its case by getting in and out without any additional distractions or subplots. For me, the entire story worked.
Likewise, director Mimi Leder keeps things straightforward and simple as well. The film looks good, it does a nice job with costumes and setting, and I easily bought into the whole story.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to tell the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame the odds and argued a groundbreaking gender discrimination case which would open the door for gender equality for years to come. And it does so in a manner that is both informative and emotional.
Don’t believe the naysayers. ON THE BASIS OF SEX is worthy of some love.
Go out and see this one before it leaves the theaters.