On the Basis of Sex
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been getting a lot of well-earned attention lately. The Supreme Court justice, and supremely kickass feminist, was the subject of the excellent documentary RBG a few months ago. Now comes the fictionalized, middling bio-pic version, On the Basis of Sex.
Opening just as Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) starts Harvard Law School, we see that she already stands out from the crowd in more ways than one. Not only is she one of the small handful of women attending the school, she’s also married and has a child. But the biggest distinguishing factor is that she’s the brightest student in her class. As nearly every male classmate and professor underestimates her, she has enough confidence and wit to consistently put them down. After transferring to Columbia and finishing her degree, despite her exemplary qualifications, she cannot land a job at any law firm in the city. Feeling crestfallen, she takes a job teaching law.
Years later, Ginsburg seems happy enough shaping the minds of the next generation of lawyers. However, when her supportive husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), discovers the perfect case to appeal and further her personal agenda of fighting gender discrimination, she’s off to the races. She hits some roadblocks, bonds with her politically active daughter, and we all know the rest of this history.
Jones is perfectly serviceable as the pint-sized titan of law, but she’s not asked to do too much with the character. Somehow, On the Basis of Sex skips over Ginsburg’s legendary wit and feistiness to make her a sharp but reserved woman who just wants to make the playing field even. Hammer is charming as always, and his towering height forces perspective to make Jones look even smaller than she already is.
Where On the Basis of Sex truly fumbles is its polishing of a messy history. While we ultimately know what will happen by the end of the film, it never manages to feel anything short of a linear journey for Ginsburg. Although there are some bumps along the way, emotionally, the threat of failure feels far away.
This glossy, non-threatening version of history makes what should be inspiring into a dull, unengaging tale. The movie has few real moments of drama and connection to a fully-realized character, but more than a few moments that seem to think they’ve done just that.
RBG is one of the most inspirational women in this country today. Her commitment to justice for all is amazing, but this lazy retelling of her entrance into the world of social justice relies too heavily on her notoriety and never rises to the level of the material.