"On the Basis of Sex" Movie Review
Some movies have that “Oscar bait” air about them—triumphant, uplifting, and powerful biopics of groundbreaking people who fought for human rights and made the world a better place through an unending struggle. And after viewing the trailer, it was very easy to imagine putting the Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic On the Basis of Sex in that category. Hot on the heels of May’s excellent RBG documentary, the film stars Oscar nominee Felicity Jones as Ginsberg and chronicles the legal wonder woman’s early years, from her debut at Harvard Law through the landmark 1972 Moritz v. Commissioner Federal Court decision, which got her legal career rolling in earnest.
Unfortunately not everything in the world of Oscar bait is as it seems, and though On the Basis of Sex can be lauded for Jones’ outstanding performances, there’s not much else that differentiates it from, say, a run-of-the-mill Movie of the Week. The overly simplistic script by first-timer Daniel Stiepleman checks off all the boxes, certainly, but rarely gives us anything more that what reading Ginsberg’s Wikipedia page would.
Jones is rock-solid in the role, even down to nailing RBG’s Brooklyn-ish accent. She marches through the movie without ever seeming to make it about herself—instead content to step back and let Ginsberg's conviction and intelligence take center stage. Most of the rest of the characters, however, are entirely one-dimensional; naturally the all-male leadership at Harvard is crotchety old white men. Of course ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) is a rumpled, tell-it-like-it-is free spirit who can’t button his top button. And, yes, Ginsberg’s own husband Marty (Armie Hammer) is a doting, super-supportive bastion of feminism when everyone else in the country with a y-chromosome is oafish at best and outright insufferable at worst.
Adding to the general shrug-worthiness is the fact that director Mimi Leder (TV’s The Leftovers) was seemingly content to sleepwalk through the proceedings and simply present RBG’s story in as straightforward a manner as possible. Every shot is framed just as you would expect, the story is paced at nothing faster than a mildly brisk walk, and heaven forbid we didn’t get the requisite biopic montage of the determined subject feverishly studying at all hours as symphonic music swirls. Credit to production designer Nelson Coates (Crazy Rich Asians), though, who expertly brings 1950s Harvard and 1970s New York to life.
There’s no questioning RBG’s dedication and incredible perseverance in the face of so much chauvinism and intolerance, and her impact in not only the legal world but the world in general will be felt for decades (if not longer) after she’s gone, but On the Basis of Sex feels like a half-baked tribute to a woman who deserves so much more.