Film Review - On the Basis of Sex

In this image released by Focus Features, Felicity Jones portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a scene from “On the Basis of Sex.”

Mimi Leder’s "On the Basis of Sex" is a nice movie with good intentions. Its release comes on the heels of the award-winning documentary, "RBG," detailing the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The film seeks to introduce viewing audiences to the earlier part of Ginsberg’s life. "On the Basis of Sex" feels like it was born out of a desire to capitalize on a popular subject rather than creativity. A script that plays by the numbers is an apt description for the way this movie narrates the plotting of historical events, but the description also, unfortunately, fits for the editing, cinematography and familiar routine this movie assumes. Both Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer are adequate in their performances as the Ginsbergs, but neither offer up a performance that would be among the year's more memorable. While this project is being sold as a Ginsberg biopic, it’s more a story about a complicated, but groundbreaking court case that plays out in a very procedural way.

Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Jones) is having a difficult time finding a job at a law firm in the 1950s, with most unwilling to hire a woman. Her husband, Martin (Hammer), in an attempt to make her feel better after she settles for a job as a law professor, explains that she will be making a greater impact on the future lawyers who will go out and change the world. “But I wanted to be the one to do that,” she replies. It’s Martin who discovers a small case involving tax law, where a man was accused of tax fraud because of a deduction he made as the caregiver for his elderly mother, a deduction that only applied to women. Ruth sees the specifics of the case as a way to challenge all laws that discriminate heavily on the basis of sex.

On paper, the achievements portrayed in this film might seem like a winning combination, considering the current political climate and Ginsberg’s popularity. However, Leder and the screenwriters never find a way to make "On the Basis of Sex" more than just a court battle film. It lacks engagement and audience involvement. There is little contained in the film that you couldn’t find on Wikipedia in far less time. Conflicts, like the one between Ruth and her rebellious daughter played by Cailee Spaeny ("Bad Times at the El Royale"), are so easily created and resolved in this script. It only takes one conversation from Martin to change the 15-year-old's entire worldview and mend the relationship between mother and daughter. The film skips the '60’s entirely, jumping directly from 1957 to the early ’70s. It’s a story about perseverance and dedication, but even those themes get lost when the story becomes solely about one case.

Sam Waterson and Kathy Bates are flashy headliners who only have a couple of scenes and bare little to no weight on the plot. Leder, a capable filmmaker, who derived such stirring emotions in his disaster movie "Deep Impact," forgets to get the audience emotionally invested here. The argument might be that the Ginsberg family is too perfect, yet you can’t alter the reality of their situation. Perfection doesn’t always make for the most captivating movie, no matter how important and life-changing the circumstances surrounding the situation. When you know the outcome, the lead up to the finale should be more interesting, and here it’s just not.

Final Thought: "On the Basis of Sex" brings history to the screen but falters with engaging the audience.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston.

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