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On the Basis of Sex

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The Scoop

Perfectly adequate and pleasant but not nearly as exceptional as its central figure, this biopic of pioneering Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ticks all the appropriate boxes but feels more like a really solid made-for-TV movie than a rousing cinematic celebration.

Our Review

Felicity Jones, in her first Big Time Starring Role, plays Ginsburg, and the film tracks her life and work from her first days at Harvard Law in 1956, where she was one of just a handful of women in a class of hundreds of men, to the groundbreaking 1970 sex-discrimination case she argued (as counsel for the ACLU) before the Supreme Court, which galvanized her career trajectory. By her side throughout is her adoring, supportive and super-smart attorney husband Marty (Armie Hammer), who’s his wife’s most fervent cheerleader at home and in the courtroom.

Along the way, we’re introduced to an array of supporting players in the formative years of Ginsburg’s remarkable life, including civil-rights icon Dorothy Kenyan (Kathy Bates); ACLU’s legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who brings Ginsburg into the fold and tries – with futility – to rein in her fiery personality; the Ginsburgs’ plucky, feminist teen daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny); and chauvinistic attorney and Harvard law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who pops in and out of Ginsburg’s life from her freshman days onward, always to inflict some sort of condescending professional suffering upon our heroine.

While there’s nothing that’s specifically wrong, per se, with the movie, it’s also kind of underwhelming. Ginsburg’s road to finding her calling is certainly important, but it also feels like the story ends just when it should be beginning – sure, the case of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), who’s denied a caregiver tax exemption, is the spark that lights the equal-rights fire in Ginsburg, but the case as it unfolds onscreen is sort of ho-hum compared to what she would do later in her career. To me, the entirety of On the Basis of Sex could have been condensed into an hour, and then a second hour could easily have followed the pint-sized powerhouse through the subsequent, more exciting decades that followed.

Jones does an okay job but never quite gels as Ginsburg – it doesn’t help that her accent wavers, and she looks 15 years old from the opening frame to the closing credits despite the fact that some 14 years are supposed to have passed. Hammer, whom I find perpetually bland regardless of the film, steps into the stereotypical “loving spouse” role normally reserved for lesser names, and is fine... just not especially memorable or impressive. Only Theroux and Spaeny inject some much-needed oomph into the onscreen proceedings – both deliver strong, engaging performances.

Overall, On the Basis of Sex does a serviceable job of honoring an incredible woman. It’s not something that demands to be seen at the multiplex, though, and is probably much better suited to a quiet-Sunday-afternoon offering on Lifetime.

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