21 December 2018 | Movie_Muse_Reviews
May it please the crowd, "On the Basis of Sex" feeds the RBG legend more than it peels back its layers
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's catapulting from venerated Supreme Court Justice to cultural icon and patron saint of liberalism has unsurprisingly led to the release of two films about her in 2018, the documentary "RBG" and now the feature film "On the Basis of Sex." Both films mirror the public's fascination with the now-85-year-old and offer evidence that RBG warrants the obsessive adoration, but "On the Basis of Sex" feeds into the legend.
The film begins with Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), in their newlywed law school days in which Ruth was one of nine women in her Harvard Law class of nearly 500, establishing context for the sex-based discrimination that she would fight in her career and the equal rights crusader she'd become. Yet Daniel Stiepleman's script incidentally positions the film as a career-spanning biopic this way, when in fact most of the film takes place close to 15 years later.
That's a surprise more than a flaw, as many of the film's best moments come out of a deep intellectual dive into the case of Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and what Ruth, Marty and the ACLU's Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) believed they had to say and do to convince three white male appellate judges to change the course of history. That's fascinating, but it's definitely not the advertised story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how she became a Supreme Court Justice.
When the film's not awash in legalese, it's trying to portray Ruth in a way that lives up to the "hype." There are lots of "ooh" and "ahh" moments as a character says something really sexist and Ruth has the perfect response, a device that kills it in a crowded theater but plays more into the myth of Ginsburg than the humanity. Jones, an outstanding actor, is left with the responsibility of trying to ground this prophetic character with a script that's lacking subtlety. Fights with her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), for example, happen instantly to blatantly serve the purpose of the story, or Jane behaves in this perfectly feminist way that convinces her mother to solider on, punctuated by the camera holding on Jones so she can convey a moment of epiphany. It's the stuff of lesser biopics to be sure.
Nevertheless, "On the Basis of Sex" conveys the key details of Ruth's story and the social importance of her work and Moritz case. (It also can't be given too hard a time for taking liberties; Stiepelman is Ginsburg's nephew and she reviewed his script for accuracy.) In particular, the film captures the importance of Ruth and Marty's relationship. Even though Hammer is far too dreamy to play a tax lawyer, the film is clear yet not over-the-top in conveying the equality of their partnership and the support they provided to each other. Jones and Hammer are terrific actors, but director Mimi Leder deserves some credit for facilitating their chemistry the right way.
The film also succeeds in communicating the scope of sex-based discrimination in the U.S. as recently as the early '70s and the amount of cases that Ruth examined as director of the ACLU's Women's Right Project. The Moritz case was the first of a series of strategic moves to slowly change the legal precedents in sex discrimination cases, and the seriousness of changing minds and ultimately engrained beliefs about gender is not lost on the film and factors into much of the conflict as Ruth, Mary and Mel strategize how to frame their appeal.
Buried within their hero's crusade is an unheralded performance from character actor Chris Mulkey as Charles Moritz, the bachelor denied tax breaks to take care of his sick, dependent mother because as a man the law did not consider him a caregiver. Every so often during the verbally superfluous court scene, Leder will peak back at Mulkey, whose eyes remind us that what matters here is not about when a man or woman should or shouldn't be allowed to do, but what a human should be entitled to to take care of another human who can't take care of themselves.
"On the Basis of Sex" needs more graceful moments like this to complement its big picture, high stakes, "history in the making" focus. But while it somewhat settles for raising up the legend of RBG (again), it deserves credit for shining a strong spotlight on what it took to tip the scales of equal rights for women closer to justice and the woman who -- in supporting partnership with her husband -- dared to make the first push.
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