THE STORYYoung lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg works with her husband to bring a groundbreaking case of gender discrimination before the Supreme Court.
THE CAST – Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston & Kathy Bates
THE TEAM – Mimi Leder (Director) & Daniel Stiepleman
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
By Will Mavity
The last 24 months have reminded us what a vital presence Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to the American institution. Accordingly, we have seen books, SNL impressions, and of course, a stellar documentary earlier this year in “RBG.” Coming late to the party, Mimi Leder’s “On The Basis Of Sex” can’t help but suffer to seeing the real deal on display both in the news and in the documentary. What we have is a fairly paint by numbers biopic, that is elevated by strong performances and some of the inescapable raw power inherent to Justice Ginsburg’s story.
“On The Basis Of Sex” wisely avoids attempting to capture Justice Ginsburg’s entire storied career on screen, instead opting to focus on her early career, specifically on the first case that ever brought her to a court appearance: a sex-based discrimination case where a man was discriminated against. In the process, she dodges the rampant sexist assumptions and behaviors that plagued the country at that time throughout her daily life and set precedents that would forever change the course of American law.
You can’t have a compelling Ginsburg biopic if the actress portraying Ginsburg doesn’t work. And Felicity Jones proves largely up to the task. It will never not be weird to me that one of the most significant Jewish women in American history is portrayed by someone who is not Jewish, but that aside, Jones is a gifted actress. Her eyes deliver the biggest impact, channeling Ginsburg’s steely gaze, even in otherwise “non-showy” scenes, leaving no doubt as to the character’s grit and determination. She nails her final courtroom appearance, delivering impassioned show-stopper monologues, channeling Ginsburg’s journey from insecurity before a court to the force to be reckoned with she would become. Her only issue is her accent, which wobbles in and out from tones of British to Midwestern American to an overdone New York accent and back. This unpredictable accent is the only major flaw in an otherwise excellent portrayal. She and Armie Hammer boast strong chemistry, showcasing a marriage where partners genuinely do seem to view one another as equals, both in the professional sphere and in the home.
The film’s cast rounds out with turns by Justin Theroux playing an ACLU representative, and Sam Waterston and Steven Root playing a pair of misogynistic villains (formerly Harvard professors, and now members of the state department going up against Ginsburg in her appeal). Kathy Bates pops up for two memorable scenes as a fiery civil rights attorney. Jones and Hammer aside, most of the supporting cast doesn’t have all that much to do, but really, this is the Ginsburg story through and through. That’s to be expected. The biggest hurdle the various cast members face is first-time writer Daniel Stiepelman’s on-the-nose screenplay, which follows the typical biopic clichés in how he introduces important information, and saddles the cast with ham-handed dialogue that literally spells out the film’s themes (and I don’t mean in the courtroom, I mean in day to day life). Fortunately, Jones and Hammer and much of the supporting cast are strong enough actors to rise above this, while director Mimi Leder offers some dynamic camera work to compensate on screen, which lends the film a sense of relentless forward momentum that keeps the plot chugging along.
And even despite those writing flaws, the Ginsburg story is just so undeniably compelling. She is a remarkable woman, and her feats are historic and awe-inspiring no matter how they’re depicted on screen. Even knowing exactly how the court will rule, the tension and suspense in the film’s climactic courtroom scene are very real. And the film’s final shot is certain to elicit cheers, chills, and applause. And scenes like that appear throughout the film with moments that pack a raw and undeniable power. Even when much of the film’s overall connective tissue feels so rudimentary, there are these individual scenes that are just so compelling that one can just feel how with a bit more revising, the film could have been truly great.
Technically, the film ranges from competent at worst to excellent at best. Mychael Danna’s score lays the emotion on too thick at times (although an end credits song courtesy of Ke$ha is lovely), while the costumes are stunning. The cinematography is a tad bland, but richer than the “tv movie look” some are alleging.
All in all, “On The Basis Of Sex” is largely a standard biopic, but its relevance, strong lead performance, Leder’s assured hand and the undeniable power and importance of its subject raise it above and beyond. It isn’t perfect. And someone like Justice Ginsburg seems to deserve perfection. But it is a damned respectable effort nonetheless.
THE GOOD – Wobbly accent aside, Felicity Jones makes a compelling Ginsburg and boasts excellent chemistry with Armie Hammer. The story’s own raw power and some truly excellent on-screen moments elevate some paint by the number biopic tropes that surround them.
THE BAD – An on-the-nose and even sometimes clumsy screenplay blunts some of the film’s impact and keeps it shy of true greatness.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10