CN+R FILM REVIEW

Rosy socio-political ‘On the Basis of Sex’is a feel-good drama, and not much else

BY NEIL MORRIS, News + Record Critic
Posted 1/14/19

On the Basis of Sex

Grade: B –

Director: Mimi Leder

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, and Sam Waterston

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 …

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CN+R FILM REVIEW

Rosy socio-political ‘On the Basis of Sex’is a feel-good drama, and not much else

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Posted

On the Basis of Sex

Grade: B –

Director: Mimi Leder

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, and Sam Waterston

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hr.

It’s a rare film that both emphatically validates the worthiness of its real-life subject while also squandering the telling of their story. “On the Basis of Sex” fits that mold, effectively ensconcing legal pioneer and eventual Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Thurgood Marshall of gender discrimination law. Unfortunately, director Mimi Leder packages her protagonist into a pedestrian case file, an easily digestible hagiography with the precedential pedigree of a made-for-TV movie.

The film runs from Ginsberg’s days as a first-year law student at Harvard University in 1956 through her victory in the seminal Charles Moritz sex discrimination lawsuit in 1970. Accompanied by her husband and fellow law student Marty (Armie Hammer, the patron prince of vanilla), Ginsburg encounters an inhospitable environment in Harvard Yard, led by Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who believes opening the student body to women merely takes spots away from deserving men. [In fairness, Griswold was a leader in liberal and civil rights law who, in the mid-1980s, analogized Ginsburg’s work with Marshall’s.] After Marty falls ill to cancer, Ginsburg supports his studies, then later transfers to Columbia University to finish law school.

Unable to secure a high-profile attorney job commensurate with her Ivy League degree, Ginsburg becomes a law professor at Rutgers University. It’s there that Marty informs her about the plight of Mr. Moritz, a man looking after his infirm mother yet legally prohibited from taking advantage of a caregiver tax deduction exclusively available to women. Ginsburg takes the case, sensing it as a legal Trojan Horse that could be leveraged to eventually overturn a swath of sexually discriminatory laws against women.

The script by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter and Ginsburg’s nephew, goes so far to sanctify Ginsburg that it flattens her portrait, sanding away any potential rough edges or narrative tension. Ginsburg’s relationship with her late husband is free from any rancor, her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) is a dutiful partner and social warrior, and all her law students and assistants are idealistic admirers. While much is made of Ginsburg’s gender, there’s little mention of being Jewish and the role of religion in her life. Nary a like-minded naysayer, from ACLU head Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) to early feminist attorney Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), isn’t eventually persuaded by Ginsburg’s pluck and guile. The villains are easy to spot, usually opposing attorneys cast as single-note chauvinist pigs. Jones’s placid portrayal of the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg is serviceable, despite not being blessed with any dramatic highlights and an impersonation that essentially amounts to dropping her Rs (“fweedom,” “genda,” and so forth).

This rosy socio-political celebration is akin to other feel-good dramas like “Hidden Figures.” You’ll come away from “On the Basis of Sex” with either a newfound or renewed sense of admiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You just won’t feel like you learned anything really new.

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