It’s easy to forget that the Notorious RBG was once not so seemingly untouchable as she is today, a cultural icon whose name has become synonymous with the sundry qualifiers with which every woman would want to be described: badass, resilient, kind, headstrong, fiercely feminist, irrepressible. Director Mimi Leder endeavored to remind the world of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s humanity and humble beginnings with On the Basis of Sex, a glossy, Very Hollywood™biopic that, ironically, leans a little hagiographic at turns in its presentation of its subject, setting on a gold filigree-decorated pedestal the future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who was once but a turquoise dot in an ocean of black suits walking the campus of Harvard Law School, a place she joked would help teach her to “be a more patient and understanding wife.”
Indeed, On the Basis of Sex keenly captures Ruth’s pre-Supreme Court years — the inception and infancy of her career as an intrepid lawyer, blustery activist, stouthearted justice-seeker — and drips with affection and admiration for her, but it’s all a bit too lacquered. Where the real-life RBG is full-fat cream, top-shelf whiskey, Wagyu beef, On the Basis of Sex is the lighter, more affordable, less bitey alternative. (Does it go down easier? Always. Is it as satisfying? Not quite.) It’s charming, sure — drenched in buttery light and featuring the always-inviting Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as her husband, Martin — and palatable in a way that will please most all crowds. Ultimately, though, the film is a safe one, a conventional telling of a trailblazer’s tale that leaves something — a richness, an electricity, a roughness that the real RBG carries — to be desired.
Written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s own nephew, On the Basis of Sex hopscotches along a lengthy timeline that’s been compacted into two hours that feel too short. At the start, Ruth is in her first year at Harvard Law when Martin, at the time in his second year of studies, is diagnosed with cancer. Attending her own courses and Martin’s (to take notes and transcribes lectures) and caring for their infant daughter, Jane, Ruth demonstrates her dedication to her family and to herself — and proves she’s capable of doing it all, an attribute women are (bizarrely) assumed to have been born with that ends up a skill they learn to master over time, lest they be berated by men whose mental cables are poorly managed. Fast forward two years, and things are looking up for Martin, now in remission and working at a law firm in New York, but down for Ruth, who is refused by Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) a request to complete her Harvard degree while attending Columbia, something many male students had done before her. Griswold denies her, even after hearing a sound argument as to why she should be able to finish up her last year of coursework at another university, and so Ruth transfers to Columbia, where she graduates at the top of her class.
But what goes up must come down, and following her graduation, Ruth faces rejection after rejection in search of a steady job at a firm, something Martin was already sitting pretty on. Though it’s not what she hoped to do — she “wanted to be the one fighting for change” rather than the one instructing the next generation how to battle adversity and demand revolution — Ruth accepts a position as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she teaches “The Law and Sex Discrimination.”
Two things eventually grant Ruth the opportunity to realize her dream of making a difference in the world: 1) A 1970 case that saw the court rule against Charles Moritz, a man who was denied a tax deduction for nursing care for his elderly mother, and 2) a tiny bit of text in Section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code that at the time specified that deductions were limited to “a woman, a widower or divorce, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized.” Motivated by her confidence that she could challenge the court and laws that assume men will be breadwinners and women home-makers, forever change the Internal Revenue Code, and set a new precedent by arguing discrimination on the basis of sex, Ruth embarks headlong on the mission that gave her her name and established the foundation of her legacy.
As Ruth, Felicity Jones is magnificent, melting into the real-life role with only a slight smack of struggle. She’s winning as ever (but when is Jones not?) and offers both passionate anger and welcome vulnerability, but the England-born actress never fully masters RBG’s distinguishing accent — an old-school Jewish-Brooklyn one that makes vowels delightfully puffed-up and features soft R-vocalization — and for that isn’t completely convincing. Many others have argued this, but it bears repeating: As fantastic as Jones is and as captivating as she is on screen, a Jewish woman (like Natalie Portman, who was meant to top-line On the Basis of Sex) may have been a better choice for the role not only for better representation but also for a more immersive performance that offers authenticity where there here is none.
You’d be hard pressed to find fault in Jones’ interplay with Hammer, whose position as the supportive spouse serves as a subversion of the perfect wife standard. The two have an innate chemistry that makes the Ginsburgs’ relationship (nay, partnership, two people always matching one another in respect) feel so real, and makes their story of a strong love and unshakable bond every bit as enjoyable to watch as is Ruth’s rise to prominence — which is saying something given Jones and Hammer individually fall short in completely reproducing the nuances of Ruth and Martin’s personalities. Like Jones doesn’t nail all of the real Ruth’s expressiveness, Hammer isn’t as chipper and outgoing as the flesh-and-blood Martin. But the actors are sincere in their approaches and entirely well-intentioned, that you can’t deny, and watching them together is an endearing experience.
The supporting cast is also strong, with Bad Times at the El Royale breakout Cailee Spaeny holding her own in scene after emotional, emotive scene as teenaged Jane opposite Jones’ Ruth. Justin Theroux dazzles as somewhat-nice, somewhat-naughty American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mel Wulf, his scene work with Jones carrying a particular tension that draws out both actors’ strengths. And of course, the legendary Kathy Bates is faultless as lawyer and civil rights activist Dorothy Kenyon. Chris Mulkey, too, shines playing Charles Moritz, whom Ginsburg rallies behind to “topple the whole damn system of discrimination.”
As expected, Leder directs with feminism-driven verve, though she does steer the ship with a heavy hand. When liveliness dips, it does so quite noticeably: Leder at times swaps swiftness and subtlety for perfectly packaged predictability and an RBG that’s more deity than human, an effigy rather than the woman herself. (This could be down to the genre, as biopics are breeding grounds for cliches, or a genuine desire to do right by RBG and her legacy — or both.)
Even when things get trite, the script gets cheesy, the pacing gets saggy, and your mind gets ahead of the film, On the Basis of Sex stands firm as a perfectly decent, though flawed, biopic that does exactly what it set out to do: extol RBG for the astounding woman she is, chronicle her personal and professional battles, and remind us that much of the America we know today is a byproduct of her blood, sweat, and tears. No, the film isn’t as radical as Ruth and it doesn’t achieve anything as remarkable as she has in her career, but it is, when all is said and done, just as charming.