Lots of people really like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
It's not hard to see why -- she's feisty, and in the 1970s she reshaped the rhetorical boundaries of jurisprudence on a wide range of fundamental issues by confronting the patriarchal voice of the law. One of the things this bio-pic gets right is its insistence that she brought the law of the land up to speed with the reality Americans were living in. She's the sort of spirit who ought to transcend politics -- even if you disagree with some of her positions it's hard not to be charmed by her personality and impressed by her rigorous commitment to excellence.
How much better this movie about her would have been had she written it.
As it is, I guess it's not too bad. I thought it was awful, but then I checked the critic-aggregating sites. More of them thought it was OK than didn't.
As played by fetching Felicity Jones, who commits no crime in the process, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is your basic superhero mom/crusading litigator. Which perhaps she was, though I doubt she was ever this banal and vanilla. Similarly, fetching Armie Hammer plays the world's best husband, which people who knew Marty Ginsburg might say is completely and totally accurate, though it doesn't do an awful lot for the dynamics of the drama herein.
So we have two very-good-maybe-not-quite-perfect-but-close-enough people who love each other and are each other's best friends and biggest cheerleaders. They get married off camera early, and the first thing we know is young Ruth's high heels are clicking through the sanctified halls of Harvard Law School, outpacing nearly all of the stolid young men who greatly outnumber her. She has a baby too, and Marty, who is a year ahead of her and suffering from testicular cancer (cue the mournful piano) which means it is highly likely he will die (unless he maintains a brave and cheerful attitude).
So she has to attend all of his classes, as well as all of hers, and read the notes she has taken to him as he valiantly fights for his life.
On the Basis of Sex
75 Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey
Director: Mimi Leder
Rating: PG-13, forsome language and suggestive content
Running time: 2 hours
I have no doubt this happened. I just don't believe that their conversations could be so prosaic and uninteresting, that they could have in real life been nearly a neutral as these pretty and expert actors make them out to be. Everything about On the Basis of Sex feels denatured, removed from the real and sometimes messy world that human beings live in.
You might think that Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) is a composite character, so thorough is his evilness, but he was a real person. And he really did ask female students "Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?" (The best answer came from Ann Cronkhite Goldblatt, who attended Harvard Law a few years after RBG. She told Griswold she'd come to Harvard because Yale turned her down.)
If you've seen RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen's affectionate and gentle documentary of the unlikely pop icon and second woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, you'll know about how she moves on to Columbia Law School, and that while Marty becomes one of New York's top tax lawyers she, despite impeccable credentials, is turned down by law firm after law firm before taking a professorship at Rutgers. (Which, by the way, is a pretty good job.)
All goes well until a fateful day when Marty asks her to read what she suspects is just another boring tax case about a bachelor denied a tax deduction for in-home care for his invalid mother, a deduction that would have been available to a single woman in the same situation. This is her Eureka! moment as she realizes that the case might work as a lever to overturn institutional sexual discrimination.
It is another virtue of this film that screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg's nephew) decides to focus on this signal case rather than gloss over Ginsburg's entire career, which would have made this film completely redundant for anyone who has seen RBG. It's the same approach Reginald Hudlin took when he made one of Thurgood Marshall's early cases the focus of 2017's highly entertaining Marshall.
Unfortunately Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue is still basically a tax case. And while the implications are obvious, the expositional scenes seem more aimed at leading the unwashed audience through the complexities of the law than putting at the shoulders of smart people sussing out important subjects. Gee-whiz equality.
It doesn't help that Justin Theroux shows up in a weird wig. Kathy Bates fares a little better as former suffragette Dorothy Kenyon, and the movie is to be commended for calling her to public opinion. Mimi Leder's direction is just fine, hitting all the obvious angles.
But arguing for this film feels a little like arguing for comic books because kids who read them at least read something. Just because a movie pleasantly depicts a genuinely interesting and admirable figure in a positive light does not make it good, and we ought to be suspect of any history we think we glean from shallow soft-focus projects like this. Maybe On the Basis of Sex has a limited purpose after-school special utility, but it's hardly the sort of movie that demands the attention of adults.
In the final moments, RBG herself appears, no doubt as a favor to her nephew. She'd have done him a bigger one if she'd attacked his script with a red pen.
MovieStyle on 01/11/2019
Print Headline: FILM REVIEW: On the basis of a lackluster script, Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie disappoints