'On the Basis of Sex': Film Review | AFI 2018

The Saint Ruth Story.
12/25/2018

Felicity Jones plays a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Armie Hammer her husband, Marty, in Mimi Leder's by-the-numbers biopic.

In the immediate wake of a hugely successful documentary portrait as well as a hefty just-published biography, the canonization of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continues with On the Basis of Sex, an idolatrous but disappointingly prosaic first pass at a dramatic presentation of her pathfinding life. To be sure, the perseverance and historical precedents associated with this brilliant and beguiling legal pioneer are present and accounted for, making for numerous inspiring moments. But the conventional connect-the-dots approach and less-than-ideal casting of the leading role keep the film from being something more than a proficient but ordinary account of an extraordinary career.

Although Ginsburg herself could hardly feel anything but delighted by the film's rapturous attitude toward her (it was written by her nephew and she gives it her tacit seal of approval by appearing in the final shot), this passionate opera fan would no doubt be most flattered if someone were to create a grand opera about her.

In the works for several years, the film was originally set to star Natalie Portman under Marielle Heller's direction, a tantalizing combination that, unfortunately, came to naught. Other than Portman or perhaps Debra Winger 30 years ago, it's hard to think of other ideal actresses for the role and, sad to say, it's not Felicity Jones. That she has been permitted to let some noticeably British vocal inflections slip through is a minor point compared to her little-varying earnest and persistently serious attitude. Of course these are traits the real woman has in abundance, but anyone who has seen the wonderful documentary RBG, which has pulled in an impressive $14 million-plus at the American box-office this year, knows there's much more to her than that, including, for starters, a lovely sense of humor and a sly, offbeat manner that suggests she always has something up her judicial sleeves.

Presumably having known his aunt all his life, first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman begins his account in 1956, when, already married and with a baby daughter, Ginsburg became one of just nine women in a class of more than 500 men entering Harvard Law School that year. This is just first of many “OMG!” moments the script has been designed to elicit, which will, indeed, stun younger audiences not cognizant of the norms a half-century ago.

Driving the story, of course, is the significant role Ginsburg played in changing these norms. Ruth Bader was lucky, as an undergraduate at Cornell, to meet Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), an all-around great guy who not only did the cooking and helped with the babies (there would eventually be a son as well) but later did very well on Wall Street. On the other hand, he almost died of testicular cancer very early on, but pulled through to make possible what looks to have been a great marriage in all respects until his death in 2010.

The film, naturally, is structured upon the hurdles confronted and jumped. Despite having graduated law school tied for first in her class, she was systematically turned down by all the top New York law firms. But with the feminist movement creating cracks in the walls by 1970, Ginsburg began focusing on sex discrimination and how such cases could be tackled in the courts. At this point she wants to be doing rather than teaching, so she begins a rough-and-tumble affiliation with the ACLU; complicit but also butting heads with its legal boss Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Ginsburg finds the ideal case of gender-based sex discrimination, in which Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey, very good), a single male Colorado caregiver, has been denied $296 on his tax deduction. The fact that the victim of discrimination is male is just what she's been looking for.

The success of this case, crystallized by Ginsburg's initially tentative but ultimately triumphant concluding argument to the judge, represents the breakthrough that opens the door to many more like it, leading to her national recognition and eventual appointment as the second female U.S. Supreme Court justice. It's an inspiring milestone, treated dramatically like Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, but one that will register more strongly with young contemporary audiences due to the modern relevance of Ginsburg's achievements and her current rock star status.

All the more unfortunate, then, that the film isn't more shrewd and less commonplace. The scenes on their own are perfectly presentable and the cases at issue could scarcely be clearer, but the feeling persists of points being made and checked off — both to give Ginsburg her A+ for a life well and importantly lived, as well as to ensure that the audience receives constant gratification concerning her right-minded outlook (nothing uncomfortable like her close friendship with conservative fellow Supreme Court Justice and opera lover Antonin Scalia, which, of course, came later).

Jones applies herself soberly and energetically to cover the bases of Ginsburg's seriousness of purpose, initial career frustration and eventual clarity of vision as to how she can carve an important identity and public role for herself. But even moderate exposure to the real woman's personality reveals a latent mischievous, humorous, frisky side that is only momentarily glimpsed in the film — and that is only brought out by her husband, who, despite Hammer's limitless congeniality, is stuck with what used to be the one-dimensional “wife” role.

Kathy Bates is a welcome presence in an excellent cameo as pioneering feminist and civil rights leader Dorothy Kenyon, while Cailee Spaeny brings a sharp rebelliousness to the Ginsburgs' precocious teenage daughter.

Shot almost entirely in Montreal, this is Mimi Leder's first theatrical feature since the straight-to-DVD Thick As Thieves nine years ago, during which time she's done a load of top-tier television. The dramatic approach here is clear, efficient and entirely on-the-nose, with little time for anything that might distract from the hagiographic effort in play. Its sole purpose is to ennoble and proclaim a hero, which its subject almost certainly is. But it makes for notably simplified drama.

Venue: AFI Film Festival

Opens: December 25 (Focus Features)

Production: Robert Cort Productions

Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny,Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Christian Mulkey

Director: Mimi Leder

Screenwriter: Daniel Stiepleman

Producers: Jonathan King, Robert W. Cort

Executive producers, Betsy Danbury, Karen Loop

Director of photography: Michael Grady

Production designer: Nelson Coates

Costume designer: Isis Mussenden

Editor: Michellel Tesoro

Music: Mychael Danna

Casting: Victoria Thomas

PG-13 rating, 118 minutes