On the Basis of Sex
Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Mel Wulf, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterson
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 a popular subject rather than creativity. Described as a script that plays by the numbers, an apt description that describes the plotting of historical events, but also, unfortunately, the editing, cinematography and familiar routine this movie assumes. Both Jones and 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, willing 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 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 law that discriminates heavily on the basis of sex.
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.
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-olds 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 in "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.
"On the Basis of Sex" brings history to the screen but falters when engaging the audience.