This is the year of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the big screen. The documentary RBG proved to be a rousing success for Magnolia Pictures, earning just over $14 million at the domestic box office and an abundance of praise from critics and movie-goers alike. Now director Mimi Leder aims to keep that momentum going with her adaptation of the earlier years of Ginsburg’s career in On the Basis of Sex.
The movie stars Felicity Jones as a young women who dreams of becoming a lawyer and representing clients in pursuit of justice. We well know that she ultimately became the second female justice to be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993, but this movie functions more as an origin story for this real life hero, covering the challenges she faced being one of just nine women in her class at Harvard Law School up to taking on one of her very first court cases addressing gender discrimination in the United States, a case many deemed unwinnable.
Initially I was inclined to write, “There’s no better time to bring Ginsburg’s story to the masses,” but is there ever really a bad time to recognize and celebrate tireless commitment to change for the better? And let’s say you know Ginsburg’s story already; it’s still well worth reiterating in a new format that could then give her drive, philosophies and accomplishments an even wider reach. Gender equality in the United States can’t happen overnight. Lasting, significant change requires on-going and widespread attention. Every single step towards equality for women matters and On the Basis of Sex effectively highlights the importance of Ginsburg’s early work while also emphasizing the value of her lasting legacy that has already changed mindsets for generations and will continue to do so.
On the Basis of Sex is a limited window into Ginsburg’s life but it’s one that conveys both the significance of singular victories and the cumulative effect that eventually leads to longterm change, and Jones aces every single step of that journey as Ginsburg. She effortlessly makes her way from Ginsburg’s school days to her first appearance in court in a way that frequently highlights the ups and downs of the passing of time – the challenges of being a young mother while attending school, the new challenges that come when that child becomes a teenager and begins assessing the world she’s born into, the frustration of working tirelessly and seeing minimal immediate results, and so much more. Jones’ performance and Leder’s shot selection put you in Ginsburg’s shoes and give you access to her mindset, one that’s certainly not perfect and impenetrable, but rather one that proves to be an especially stimulating and inspiring mix of stubbornness and being open to other opinions with a steadfast dedication to doing good as a backbone.
However, while Jones is radiant and the chemistry between her and Armie Hammer is palpable, it can be a little distracting that we’ve got two picture perfect actors who look more like done-up Hollywood stars than the real people they’re portraying. Yes, Ruth and Marty were lookers at this point in their lives, but in the movie, Hammer and Jones come across as a little too idealized. But still, the pair does excel as much as possible, and perhaps that specific look even suits the movie because it’s an especially glossy, pleasant telling of these events. On the Basis of Sex boasts an infectious shine and the period charm of 50s and 70s styling that’s often enhanced with lighting choices that specifically highlight Jones as Ginsburg, often with hero framing and window light that hits her at just the right angle.
The film often feels a little too polished, conventional and even a tad thin, but Leder and her cast breathe enough life into the words on the page that On the Basis Sex concludes with the intended and worthy celebration of Ginsburg’s work, even if it didn’t rock me to the core as much as I had hoped. There are two supporting performances in particular that take their given dialogue to new levels courtesy of wildly charismatic performances – Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the head of the ACLU, and Cailee Spaeny as Ruth’s daughter, Jane Ginsburg. Theroux takes some big swings with Wulf’s personality and eccentricities, but most pay off, particularly during a scene when he’s helping Ruth prepare for court. And if Spaney isn’t on your radar yet, On the Basis of Sex marks yet another project that suggests we could and should continue to see a lot of her. Jane frequently butts heads with her equally willful mother, and Spaney has no trouble at all going toe to toe with Jones, resulting in a number of truly electric conversations.
But while On the Basis of Sex has many moments like those that really do pop, overall the words “proficient” and “light” come to mind. Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman pens a script that’s oozing with good intentions and it’s also packed with bold moments, some of which take a very on-the-nose approach to addressing important issues, but even though the heart and Ginsburg’s inspiring tenacity are there, there’s still something missing. When Leder got up and addressed the crowd prior to the On the Basis of Sex AFI Fest debut, she nearly moved me to tears discussing the unwavering dedication to getting this story on the big screen, but the movie itself never quite gets there. While that is unfortunate, we still wind up with a solid, energetic movie that will continue to spread the goals and achievements of an incredible woman who changed and continues to change this country for the better, and that’s still a positive, commendable place for this movie to land.