“ON THE BASIS OF SEX” — 2½ stars — Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston; PG-13 (language and suggestive content); in general release; running time: 120 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex” is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic by way of a courtroom drama. It’s effectively a dramatization of a small portion of last year’s “RBG,” the documentary that profiled the Supreme Court’s famed dissenter Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The film opens in 1956 as Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) begins her studies at Harvard Law School. She’s already a married mother — her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) is a year ahead of her at the same school — and “On the Basis of Sex” paints a vivid picture as its protagonist enters the school amid a sea of carbon copied young white men in suits.
Ginsburg isn’t the first woman to attend Harvard Law, but she and her few female peers are the subject of constant agitation by way of other students, faculty and a condescending administration. The struggle continues through a transfer to Columbia, graduation and an inexplicable difficulty to sign on at even a low-end New York firm.
The heart of the film’s story kicks in a few years later, when, while teaching at Rutgers, Ginsburg comes across a case that proves to be the key to her future. All her life she’s struggled against formalized bias against women, but Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue highlights bias against men (specifically, a single bachelor claiming a tax deduction to help tend to his elderly mother). If she can win this case, Ginsburg’s thinking goes, the effect will bring about the change she desires.
From here, “On the Basis of Sex” zeroes in on Ginsburg’s involvement with the Moritz case, which of course culminates with her arguments before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and eventually brings her to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993.
As a courtroom drama, “On the Basis of Sex” gets the job done, though as its own characters admit, the sex appeal of a tax case probably isn’t the best candidate for big screen treatment. Yet the plot is easy to follow, and there’s only a bit of snickering when the heroic Ginsburg team, gathered around a humble kitchen table, is juxtaposed against the evil conspiring forces within the Department of Justice, who leer in a smoke-filled room.
As a biopic, “On the Basis of Sex” is OK. Jones’s performance is solid as usual, though the focus on the Moritz case limits the film’s ability to truly probe the depths of its subject. It’s likely that fans of Ginsburg will enjoy the more comprehensive “RBG” quite a bit more than the dramatization.
Actually, the most telling takeaway from “On the Basis of Sex” might be the closing titles, which remind audiences of Ginsburg’s 96-3 confirmation vote. No matter how you’ve felt about the nomination battles in the years since, that near unanimous confirmation will leave audiences with something to think about.
Rating explained:“On the Basis of Sex” is rated a soft PG-13 for some profanity and mild sexual content.