Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex
By Matthew Huntley
January 22, 2019
In its honorable attempt to inform viewers on the early career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the second woman to be appointed as U.S. Supreme Court Justice (only four women in total have ever served on the bench) — “On the Basis of Sex” actually shortchanges them. This comes as a disappointing surprise given how remarkable, important and inherently compelling Ginsburg’s real-life story is, which 2018’s earlier documentary, “RBG,” realized especially well. It should stand to reason, then, that a dramatic retelling of her inspirational journey would be able to engage us just as easily.
But it doesn’t, because one of the key differences between the far superior “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex” is the former, for all its bias praise of Ginsburg, still managed to educate us and provide interesting information about the legendary octogenarian we might not have otherwise known, but even we did, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West weaved their non-fiction film with a lot energy and charisma through talking heads and amusing scenes featuring Ginsburg herself (like showing her perform push-ups and lift weights), in addition to archived audio clips of her court cases. We first got introduced to her and then got to know and appreciate her as the film went along.
“On the Basis of Sex,” on the other hand, assumes we already know who she is and establishes Ginsburg as a larger-than-life heroine from its opening shot, in a way forcing us to think highly of her from the very beginning. It doesn’t allow us to form our own opinion of her character. And just in case we forget, the screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who just happens to be Ginsburg’s real-life nephew, constantly reminds us just how bright, amazing, hard-working, and perseverant she was as she established herself in the legal world. But rather than just show this to us through her accomplishments and behavior, the film explicitly tells us over and over again, and unlike the interviews with her real-life cohorts that did the same thing in “RBG,” listening to actors speak lines of praise makes them sound forced, cheesy and artificial.
Another problem is Stiepleman’s script and director Mimi Leder’s storytelling strategy leave little wiggle room in regard to the direction the narrative will take. You essentially know where it’s going the whole time, even if you’re unfamiliar with the history surrounding the film’s main court case. The events happen and connect too linearly, which doesn’t make them particularly interesting or challenging, and so we don’t walk away from “On the Basis of Sex” feeling like we’ve gained a true sense of Ginsburg’s struggles, not only as a woman in a male-dominated field but as a first-time lawyer attempting to revolutionize the legal system. Because the film makes it so abundantly clear from the get-go she will be the victor, it film robs itself of suspense, intrigue and wonder, which is a shame since Ginsburg is such a wonder herself.
All this isn’t to say “On the Basis of Sex” lacks noble intentions. I believe Stiepleman and Leder thought they were only doing the world good by telling Ginsburg’s rousing underdog story, from her humble beginnings as a Jewish wife, mother and full-time student at Harvard Law School (she was one of the first women to attend the program), to taking on a landmark case that spearheaded the overturning of several gender-based discrimination laws. Viewers should know who Ginsburg is and what she accomplished. But the film operates on being a safe crowd-pleaser first and a thoughtful, complicated drama second, and that leaves us ultimately unfulfilled.
To be fair, “On the Basis of Sex” shows great affection for its heroine and paints a clear picture of who Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was. We recognize her sacrifices and obstacles, which, along with simply being an intelligent woman who speaks her mind in the late 1950s, included taking care of her sick husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), who developed testicular cancer in his early 20s. This meant Ruth had to attend both his and her classes at Harvard to make sure they both graduated on time. And if that wasn’t enough, a couple years later, she’s put in the difficult position of asking the Dean of Harvard Law (Sam Waterston) to allow her to finish her degree at Columbia University because Marty gets a job at a New York law firm. And when the time finally comes for her to practice law, she’s rejected by a dozen firms, clearly because of her sex. All the while, she’s having to be a mom to her rebellious and precocious daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who’s even less afraid to speak her mind than her mother and feeds her unruly side by skipping school to attend women’s liberation rallies, as well as her younger son James (Callum Shoniker).
By 1972, Ruth has been teaching law for nearly a decade at Rutgers, with a focus on gender discrimination. Her students are mostly female who, as Marty says, “You’re preparing to change the world.” But Ruth has longed to be a changer herself, and when she expresses she doesn’t want to be a teacher anymore, Marty finds her a seemingly insignificant tax case, which his firm is allowing him to take on as side work. The catch is the plaintiff is a 63-year-old bachelor named Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), who’s seeking a $600 tax deduction for caregiver expenses, which the state of Colorado has denied him because he’s a man.
A light bulb goes off, and Ruth and Marty believe such a case, which would come to be known as “Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue,” would be a perfect illustration of just how rampant discrimination is in the legal system, and that by showing how some laws can adversely affect a man, winning it would set a precedent and give Ruth ammunition to overturn other gender-based laws that discriminate against women, which is most of them.
To help fund and bring attention to the case, Ruth enlists the help of her old summer camp buddy and legal director of the ACLU, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). He’s hesitant to show support at first but gets bullied into it by female activist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), whom the film portrays more as a caricature than a real person (even the multi-talented Bates can’t quite bring her down to Earth).
Once the case gets underway, what transpires in “On the Basis of Sex” is essentially par for the course as far as Hollywood courtroom dramas do: the “good guy” prosecutors get inspired because they feel they’re fighting for the greater good; they conduct mock trials that show where they need to improve; they suffer setbacks and take blows to their confidence; and in the face of doubt, they come to terms with the overwhelming probability they will lose. Eventually, though, at the very last minute, and just when it matters most, they rise from the ashes and deliver an unassailable argument and save the day.
All this holds our attention well enough, and I’m sure it is, in some way, representative of the truth, but as a Hollywood drama, I found “On the Basis of Sex” too digestible, polished and manipulative for its own good. The film paints its heroic characters in too glowing a light and the “bad guy” defense team as too stonyhearted. The latter is led by Department of Justice Attorney James Bozarth (Jack Reynor) and Ginsburg’s former professor at Harvard (Stephen Root), who, wouldn’t you know, either never called on her when she raised her hand or insulted her after he did. Now she gets the chance to show him up. And just in case you didn’t know the characters played by Waterston, Bozarth and Root were the “villains,” they share a scene where they’re all scheming in a dark room. The only source of light comes from a prickling fire and a projector displaying pictures of judges they feel they have to convince that, should Moritz win, it would “destroy the American family.”
Scenes as obvious as these make up the bulk of “On the Basis of Sex,” and it ends up being more patronizing than absorbing. It wants so badly to get on our good side that it doesn’t care how factitious it appears. One particular moment that feels especially grandstand-ish takes place when Ruth and Jane get whistled and wooed at by a group of construction workers. Jane, using her feminist power, immediately fires back at them, and Ruth declares, “Jane, you’re your own woman. There was once a time when you wouldn’t have been able to do that.” Stiepleman’s script doesn’t hesitate to bold, underline and italicize just how powerful women can be, but it goes too far, and it pushes our emotional buttons to the point where we feel like pushing back. That’s not the kind of reaction we should have toward a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
If “On the Basis of Sex” accomplishes anything, it’s that it proves real-life people and events are often better suited for non-fiction than a Hollywood dramatization. As a narrative, it too often succumbs to melodrama and exaggerates its characters’ assets and situations so that we only see them in a certain way, which makes them seem insincere. If only screenwriters and directors knew that real-life subjects are best presented as real-life characters and that we respond to them most when we can relate to them simply as humans—humans trying to overcome incredible feats. As Ginsburg would no doubt agree, relaying only the truth about someone or something can allow us to see, clearly and deeply, just how extraordinary they are.