Film Review – “On the Basis of Sex”



ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Starring:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer
Directed by: Mimi Leder
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs
Focus Features

In the era of the Me Too movement, the biographical drama “On the Basis of Sex” has the appearance of fitting in with the times as it highlights the early struggles against oppressive sexism by current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While it contains all the necessary components of a story that you know will be uplifting in the end, it often feels like it should come with shiny wrapping paper and big red bow. While the story makes it clear how difficult it was for Ginsburg to launch her legal career simply because of her gender, the film is too generic for its own good. Inspiring? Yes. Different from a myriad of other inspirational, biographical dramas? Not so much. 

It’s 1956 and director Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact,” “The Peacemaker”) does a great job with the first shot of the film by having a sidewalk crammed with emotionless male law students and professors walking to class clad in drab suits. In the middle of it all there is a singular woman in a blue dress standing out from the nameless crowd. The talented Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) generates a sense of wide-eyed excitement as Ruth, but she also manages to show us there is a determined confidence within the aspiring attorney. 

Ruth not only has to force reluctant Harvard professors to pay her any serious attention, embodied by a law dean (Sam Waterston) with a paternalistic attitude towards his few female students, but she also has to balance being newly married to aspiring tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and being a new mother. Further complications arise when Martin is given a grim diagnosis of testicular cancer with less than a 10% chance to survive. Ruth’s resolve is such that she attends Martin’s classes as well as her own as he battles his illness. 

Ultimately, Martin recovers and becomes a rising star at a law firm while Ruth is unable to get any jobs because of her gender. She relents her pursuit and by 1970 has established herself as a law professor at Rutgers University. Her life and career are forever changed, though, when Martin presents her a gender-based tax case involving a bachelor who was denied a tax deduction based upon the fact he never married. The Ginsburgs see it as an opportunity to start breaking down every law in the country that discriminates against gender, but first they must win their case, which proves to be more daunting than Ruth could have ever imagined. It all sets up a dramatic courtroom climax that we have seen in some variation or form many times before. 

“On the Basis of Sex” is an inspiring film with nice performances and a nice story. However, there isn’t a wow factor to it or anything that leaves a lasting impression afterwards, with a possible exception of Jones’ solid performance. Ginsburg’s impressive legal career is already well-documented, yet we don’t see enough of what her private life was like, much less what she was like while growing up. There is an emotional connection we are not able to quite establish with her because of this void, albeit there is one brief story Martin relates to their teen daughter about Ruth’s relationship with her mother. 

The story flows easily but it fails to get down and dirty considering the offensiveness of the situation women of the times faced then, and still face today. And to be fair, where is the inspirational movie about the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court – Sandra Day O’Connor? Shouldn’t her tale of sacrifice and ceilings shattered be told as well? “On the Basis of Sex” is a decent film that’s enjoyable but not impactful.

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