It’s wild when a person as interesting as Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspires not only a barely decent documentary (RBG), but a barely decent biopic (“On the Basis of Sex”) as well.
Ginsburg rivals Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis as one of the pioneers of Second Wave feminism during the 1950s through the 1970s, so it’s no surprise Hollywood wants to create features based on her, though it is a little surprising it took as long as it did. Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex,” a biopic about RBG, goes wide this month after spending Christmas and New Year’s with a limited Los Angeles and New York City release. The movie had been in the works for a while, with Oscar winner Natalie Portman originally reported to star as the law woman, until Oscar nominee Felicity Jones eventually took the role.
Jones portrays the groundbreaking Supreme Court Justice at the beginning of her career, first as a Harvard law student, then a university professor of women’s studies, and finally, a lawyer during a 15 year stint, from 1956 to 1971. The first act is primarily Ruth at law school, dealing with all the general obstacles you see in movies about important women in history. Male classmates are confused as to why she’s in law school rather than at home, male professors refuse to call on her when she raises her hand, and the dean doesn’t thinking she’s good enough to transfer for her final two years.
It gets bumpier for Ruth when she has to study overtime while her husband and fellow law student Marty (Armie Hammer) is recovering from testicular cancer. Worse, she soon discovers no law firm wants to hire a woman out of fear she might cause tension at the office or jealousy with the male colleagues’ wives. Things get brighter, though, after she becomes a university professor and mother of two, including her rebellious teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny). And, when Marty sporadically brings a peculiar case to Ruth’s attention, she decides to take up the challenge that will successfully alter how the law is written.
Justin Theroux gives us an entertaining performance as ACLU leader Mel Wulf, and Kathy Bates appears for a whole two-scene cameo as legendary attorney Dorothy Kenyon. “On the Basis of Sex” really should have been an easy film to make into a hit, what with so many people aware of Ginsburg’s impact. Even the younger viewers who were born well past RBG’s early years learned about her in college. But the tone and execution of the picture feels a little corny, to be blunt.
The biopic has a light-hearted, feel-good tone that makes it come off like a hit biopic from the late 1990s – or even a popular basic cable TV movie from the mid-2000s, rather than a feature film about one very important woman. That feel is quite evident during the transition scenes to the 1970s in the second act, when we see how much has changed since Ruth’s Harvard days. As she walks through a protest on her campus with the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” playing in the background, it feels almost like she stepped onto the set of “Forrest Gump” (1994). The TV movie feel does make some sense, though, when you factor in that Leder has spent the majority of her career directing television programs.
And, while the producers made sure the director was a woman, the screenwriter of “On the Basis of Sex” is actually a man named Daniel Stiepleman, and according to IMDb, this is his first script. How’d he get such a big project to kick off his resume? Well, he just sop happens to be Ruth and Marty’s real-life nephew.
With safe, by-the-numbers movies like this go, sometimes the performances can make up for the stale dialogue. Hammer does his usual best as the attractive, charismatic man in three-piece suit. Jones, who has proven herself with films like “The Theory of Everything” (2014) that she is capable of a great performance, tries her best to carry all of “On the Basis of Sex.” Unfortunately, Brooklyn accents aren’t her forte, and it is a distraction for many of the scenes.
The one thing the movie does have going for it is the supportive relationship between Ruth and Marty – with Marty being fully in favor of Ruth’s career success. Because of this, Ruth’s big win at the court at the close of the film is treated more like a win for the couple (probably Stiepleman’s influence), rather than her win for the feminist movement. Like the 2018 RBG doc, “On the Basis of Sex” just merely touches the surface of what could – and probably should – have been a heftier look into Ginsburg’s impact on women and equal rights.