On the Basis of Sex (United States, 2018)

December 19, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
On the Basis of Sex Poster

On the Basis of Sex is a perfectly adequate bio-pic focused on the early life and courtroom baptism of now-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Although less illuminating and more filled with Hollywood claptrap than the recent documentary hagiography RBG, the film has a nice rhythm once the narrative shifts to the legal maneuvering surrounding Ginsburg’s groundbreaking 1972 case of Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Abetted by a strong lead performance from actress Felicity Jones, the film stands as a monument to gender equality at a time when that subject has become a hot-button issue due to the upheaval associated with the “#metoo” movement.

The film is essentially broken into two pieces. The first hones in on the 1950s and early 1960s when Ruth (Felicity Jones) becomes one of the first women enrolled in Harvard Law School. Her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), who is a year ahead of her in the same institution, provides moral support until testicular cancer forces him to rely on her. She faces institutional sexism at Harvard, the most egregious of which comes from Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), a staunch conservative. Eventually, after switching to Columbia to allow Martin to begin practicing at a prestigious New York law firm, she graduates and, despite excellent grades, finds positions hard to come by. She accepts a professorship at Rutgers, where she remains for the next ten years.

The second half is where the movie earns its title as Ruth joins with her husband to represent Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) in a suit against the IRS. Central to Ruth’s argument on Mortiz’s behalf is that the United States tax code is unconstitutional – offering provisions that are unequal to men and women. With the reluctant support of ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Ruth and Martin reject a settlement and present their case in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. This becomes Ruth’s “coming out” opportunity and launches her career as a staunch advocate for gender equality.  (On the Basis of Sex encapsulates Ginsburg’s post-Mortiz work via a montage and a closing caption – the film, written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, is interested only in her genesis, not her greatest hits.)

The scenes related to the Moritz case are fascinating, from Ginsburg’s wrangling with Wulf to obtain ACLU involvement to a mock trial in which she loses her cool to the final maneuvers that lead to a meticulous re-creation of the hearing. The early sequences and domestic interactions, however, are generic and cliched, too-familiar moments we feel we have seen in other (perhaps better) movies. At times, Ginsburg’s conversations with her high school-age daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), lack credibility. Their dialogue is too obviously the contrivance of a screenwriter and one scene in particular – it takes place in the rain while Jane is hailing a cab – drips with artifice. But when the movie gets into its wheelhouse around the Moritz case, it crackles with energy.

Felicity Jones’ performance is solid. She incorporates some of Ginsburg’s mannerisms and nails the Brooklyn accent – it’s subtle (or at least as subtle as a Brooklyn accent can be said to be) but unmistakable. Armie Hammer plays Martin as a candidate for sainthood, but that’s more the fault of the screenplay than the performance. Sam Waterston relishes the rare opportunity to play the heavy – the guy defending the status quo for fear that ceding any part of “white male privilege” will endanger the fabric of American society.

Director Mimi Leder, whose previous theatrical efforts include the regrettable Deep Impact and the mawkish-yet-affecting Pay It Forward, does an effective job recreating the time and place in which Ginsburg developed from a determined student into a firebrand advocate. Although the film’s heart is in the right place, there are times when it feels a little too much like an obligatory ode to feminism than a fully fleshed-out biography. Nevertheless, it’s well-constructed and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Although not scaling the Oscar heights the filmmakers and financiers may have hoped for, On the Basis of Sex mostly avoids hero-worship in recreating the shameful truth of where the country was a half-century earlier and the importance of Ginsburg in the legal aspect of the shift that continues to this day.

On the Basis of Sex (United States, 2018)

Director: Mimi Leder
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey
Home Release Date: 2019-04-09
Screenplay: Daniel Stiepleman
Cinematography: Michael Grady
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2018-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1