This review was originally published on 6/2/2019.
In the age of Donald Trump, it’s unsurprising that Ruth Bader Ginsburg – only the second woman in history to ascend to the US Supreme Court – has become something of a superhero. And like many superhero movies, Mimi Leder’s biopic On the Basis of Sex is essentially an origin story, charting Ginsburg’s work on a court case that aimed to prove that gender discrimination was unconstitutional.
The opening shots, which eventually pick Ginsburg’s heels and blue skirt out of a sea of men’s shoes, make it clear that this is exactly the movie you were expecting it to be. We get several scenes of Ginsburg proving herself as a woman in a man’s world in the late ’50s, which feel all the more perfunctory when we suddenly jump forward a decade to get to the real meat of the story.
Scenes of various characters talking in legalese (and repeating the film’s title enough times to make a drinking game a lethal prospect) quickly blur together. Thankfully it’s all in service of a rousing final courtroom battle, when the Notorious RBG gets the opportunity to deliver some genuinely affecting arguments.
Felicity Jones does solid, unshowy work as Ginsburg herself, allowing us brief glimpses of vulnerability beneath a mask of determination. It’s just a shame that the men in her orbit threaten to overshadow her performance. Armie Hammer, in particular, brings perhaps too much dazzle to his turn as Ginsburg’s husband. Still, credit where it’s due; a lesser script might have driven a wedge between them for extra tension, but here they’re always portrayed as a loving and supportive couple as well as a formidable legal team.
A woman as inspirational as Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves a first-rate biopic, but On the Basis of Sex never rises above serviceable. Still, in times of darkness it serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come, and maybe that’s enough.
CAST: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates
DIRECTOR: Mimi Leder
WRITER: Daniel Stiepelman
SYNOPSIS: The true story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and the early cases of an historic career that lead to her nomination and confirmation as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice.