Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place in history is secure; it’s her story that seems to be in question. To borrow a line from the Bard: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And while Bader Ginsburg is those last two wrapped into one, a recent obsession with the U.S. Supreme Court justice has ignored the latter in interest to commodifying the former.
As a justice, Bader Ginsburg is impeachable; as a person of conviction, she is an inspiration. But a subject of inspiration does not an inspirational movie make. How odd that 2018 would see two celebratory movies about Bader Ginsburg: the documentary RBG and the narrative On the Basis of Sex. Though the former had too light a touch for a subject as potent as Bader Ginsburg, the latter’s sin is much more egregious. It would rather tell than show, rather shout than talk, and rather pander than intrigue.
Written by Daniel Stiepleman, directed by Mimi Leder, and starring Felicity Jones as the young Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex spans the years from Bader Ginsburg’s first day at Harvard Law School—a place where a woman is not made to feel welcome—to her first victory in Denver, Colorado, with the 10th Circuit Court ruling in her favor and overturning a tax dispute.
The dispute in question: a bachelor is denied of a caretaker tax incentive that would have been awarded to him if he were a woman or a widower. Bader Ginsburg’s argument is thus: penalizing a man for being a bachelor prescribes social roles based on a person’s gender, effectively discriminates a man because he is a man. Not exactly Bader Ginsburg’s primary motive, but she knows, as does the American Civil Liberties Union and the legal team formed to oppose Bader Ginsburg, that if this decision is reversed in a court of law, a precedent will be set. A precedent that could lead to overturning hundreds of laws discriminating on the basis of sex—or gender, as a typist assisting Bader Ginsburg, suggests.
Unfortunately, On the Basis of Sex drives this point home for the movie’s entire 120-minute runtime. Characters debate the merits of gender roles in courtrooms, in chambers, in classrooms, in hallways, in offices, on street corners, and over plates of cheese and pâté.
Jones’ performance brings little more than indignant righteousness to the cause, and as does the rest of the players. Bader Ginsburg’s eldest daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), is a constant reminder that the change isn’t coming; it’s already here, while Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) stands in for every last decent man. Sure, the ACLU’s Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) has his heart in the right place, but even he withers in the presence of the struggle before him. The other men—Stephen Root, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor, et al.—are so blatantly one-dimensional they come off like cartoons. In one scene, they heatedly discuss the importance of upholding the law—i.e., gender division—with fierce passion in front of their silent wives. One wonders what these women think, a pity neither Steipleman nor Leder offers them a voice.
On the Basis of Sex is the kind of insipid crowd-pleaser that panders so obviously to an audience who refuses to open a history book. Every sentence is underlined and finished with an exclamation point. It feels like a movie made specifically for now—which might point to its potential success at the box office—yet feels like a movie so out of step, even ten years ago, it would have felt antiquated.
On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Jonathan King
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor
Focus Features, PG-13, Running time 120 minutes, Opens December 25, 2018