Mimi Leder’s On The Basis Of Sex is a ready-made, hagiographic, routine biopic of doughty Ruth Bader Ginsburg depicted earlier this year in a stellar documentary of an unlikely woman who became a rock star, RBG.
Much was stacked against Ruth whose early legal battles would help change the world for women and there’s not the twists in this fictionalized account as there was in the aforementioned unprecedented access by filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Here’s the superficially attractive ‘origin story’ that has a similar unhurried pace as a 1998 big-budgeted Leder film of a comet hurtling towards Earth, Deep Impact.
British actress Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Like Crazy, The Theory of Everything) evinces the subtle steely determination of a twenty-something Jewish Ginsburg (who’s now in her mid-80s) at the outset before focusing on a 1972 tax case predicated on gender discrimination where ACLU assisted Ruth and tax attorney hubby Marty (Armie Hammer of Sorry To Bother You and Call Me By Your Name).
Scribe Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s actual nephew) provides the schematic of the couple (with Ruth one of a select few women entering Harvard Law School and would become a Rutgers law professor) and professional, as well as personal travails (including Marty overcoming testicular cancer). But, Hammer may have a more interesting part than expected to help his wife (who would have such a distinguished career) chip away at a chauvinistic status quo, before letting her really muster the challenge beginning to realize the burgeoning force within her.
Jones, with a bit of a wavering accent, will put Ruth in position to argue discrimination against her former Harvard professor (Stephen Root) and its dean Erwin Griswold (‘Law & Order’ veteran Sam Waterston) as Leder and Stiepleman do their best to fashion an effective courtroom drama (at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals). When you boil down On The Basis Of Sex, though, it just is too facile and lessening, given the singular nature of its subject.
For those coming in cold to Ginsburg, Jones’ stature and presentation may fit the bill. The more animated, auxiliary turns come from Justin Theroux (The Spy Who Dumped Me, currently in Bumblebee and from awhile back in Mulholland Drive) as the cynical, uptight ally Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates as lawyer/activist Dorothy Kenyon in what Ruth might privately agree is too generic and timorous for its own good.