The 400-Word Review: On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves better treatment than this by-the-numbers biopic.

Photo by Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

Iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of the lauded 2018 documentary “RBG,” an Oscar hopeful and generally well-respected biography. Hopefully, that will be the Ginsburg movie people remember — not the limp, uninspiring biopic “On the Basis of Sex.”

The narrative feature, starring decidedly British actress Felicity Jones as the Brooklynite Ginsburg, never commits to a structure, let alone a purpose. We first meet the diminutive judge as a newcomer at Harvard Law, only a few years after women were admitted to that institution; she is subjected to any number of gendered indignities, which she reports to her supportive (and underwritten) husband, Martin (Armie Hammer).

Then we breeze through nearly every meaningful moment of Ginsburg’s young adulthood. Martin has a cancer scare! She transfers to Columbia; Harvard gives her a tough time about it! She can’t get a job! She becomes a professor! There are kids (Cailee Spaeny and Callum Shoniker)!

Finally, in the last 45 minutes or so, a point: The Ginsburgs have identified an unlikely case of gender discrimination which, they believe, has the potential to upend precedent. They get to work, Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) gets the ACLU involved, and we squish an entire movie plot into a bloated third act.

To be positive for a minute: The cast is good. Jones gives a careful performance, inconsistent accent aside, and Hammer is charming. Spaeny, as Ginsburg’s eldest, ably walks a teen-angst tightrope. A strong supporting lineup includes Sam Waterston, Stephen Root and Justin Theroux.

Beyond that … hmm.

It’s laudable that Participant Media recognized that a female filmmaker was needed to helm a Ginsburg biopic, but they selected precisely the wrong director: Mimi Leder, who has not released a theatrical feature in 18 years and whose only notable successes are the action spectacles “The Peacemaker” and “Deep Impact.” Indeed, Leder approaches a quiet biography as though it’s a disaster flick, complete with inactive institutional heavies (who knew that Harvard was straight-up evil?) and an overwrought focus on family dynamics as motivation.

Those ills could also be the fault of screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, who might’ve done a broad biography and might’ve done a movie about the central litigation, but waffled and tried to do a bit of both — to the decided detriment of the finished product. “On the Basis of Sex” is not worth watching, and that is an extreme disservice to its subject.

My Rating: 4/10

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