Movie Review: “On the Basis of Sex”

“On the Basis of Sex” is an ordinary movie about an extraordinary woman.

Its subject is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lawyer and equal-justice advocate turned appeals court judge for the District of Columbia turned U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the post she has held since 1993 and which has earned her national fame as a folk/cult hero. This is the second major motion picture about Ginsburg to arrive in theaters in less than a year; it’s best to watch the first one, the CNN Films documentary “RBG,” before embarking on this biopic, as it offers a more generous sweep of her five decades of influential legal interpretation.

By contrast, “On the Basis of Sex” focuses on her early career, long before she became a liberal lioness for her impassioned decisions and dyspeptic dissents. In its opening sequence, shot in the slow-motion style of a ‘90s music video, hers are the only skirt and heels ascending the hallowed steps of Harvard Law School, surrounded as she is by clean-cut men in identical suits. It’s 1956, and she’s one of nine women accepted into the college; it’s only the sixth year Harvard Law has permitted women students.

The movie follows Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) along her uphill batter for equity in university life—where the good-old-boy dean (Sam Waterston) still refers to the qualities necessary in a “Harvard man”—and her post-collegiate job search, during which she faced similar misogynistic roadblocks, despite finishing first in her class. The story culminates more then a decade later, with her first legal argument, in the landmark Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which would establish precedent for future cases of gender discrimination.

“On the Basis of Sex” touches, not enough, on Ruth’s marriage to Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), a supportive and, if we believe this film’s hagiographic portrait, faultless man. Diagnosed with testicular cancer while they were in law school together—in the movie, he collapses from the disease while playing charades, one of many contrivances I didn’t believe for a second—Ruth tirelessly audited his classes and completed his coursework during his recovery, in addition to her own work, while raising their infant child.

Ginsburg was a superwoman, there’s no doubt about it. And I have no reservations that the sexism she encountered was accurate, especially the smug condescension that drips from Waterston’s Dean Griswold, and Stephen Root’s Professor Brown, her Harvard superiors turned rivals in the Moritz case. When potential employers prejudge her on the basis of sex, assuming she would be too emotional for a post at their firm, or too much of a “ball-buster,” we think of the famous Ginger Rogers quote that a woman needs to do everything a man does, only backwards and in high heels.

But director Mimi Leder, with her screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, over-correct to make a point. Every male in her ascent up the legal ladder is thick-headed or wrong-headed; when she becomes a professor to a class full of hippie revolutionaries straight of Central Casting—it’s 1970, after all—the same applies: The girls are all wisecracking sages, the boys all out-of-touch bastions of male privilege.

The same lack of nuance defines the actions of Ginsburg’s legal rivals—who conspire against the progress of gender equity in literal smoke-filled rooms—and her ideological equals, like prominent feminist Dorothy Kenyon, played as a cartoon of cynicism and eccentricity by Kathy Bates. When not trading in clichés, Leder favors didactic speechifying and stilted a-ha moments: “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t have been where you are today,” she announces, standing umbrella-less in the rain, after her postmodern daughter combats the catcalls of some construction workers.

This scene is endemic of the movie as a whole, in that it feels stage-managed, from the direction to the production design—with its fastidious use of the color blue, a self-conscious affectation—to the score, which turns sprightly when Ginsburg pulls herself out of a rut, soaring when she delivers an inspirational argument.

The result is a complex life reduced to narrative shorthand—the triumph of the underdog against all odds. “On the Basis of Sex” will, and should be, screened in schools as a primer on the law, on our history of sexism, and on a marvelous woman’s efforts to transform both. Ginsburg certainly did these things; it’s just that in Leder’s film, I don’t buy it.

“On the Basis of Sex” opens Thursday, Jan. 3 at Regal Shadowood 16 and Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14 and other area theaters.