Directed by: Mimi Leder
Premise: Based on true events. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) attends law school and establishes herself as an educator and an activist for gender equality. She represents the plaintiff in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, a case of sex discrimination against a man.
What Works: On the Basis of Sex is an enjoyable legal drama. The film hits all the right notes to satisfy the kind of crowd pleasing entertainment it’s intended to be and the anticipated audience, especially those who buy “Notorious RBG” merchandise, ought to get what they want from it. Many of the best scenes in On the Basis of Sex are its personal moments. Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Armie Hammer plays her husband Martin. Their relationship forms the emotional core of the story and Jones and Hammer have a likable romantic chemistry. Cailee Spaeny is cast as the Ginsburg’s teenage daughter Jane and the parent-child conflicts feel authentic. There is an interesting tension between daughter and mother; the film takes place in the 1970s and Jane is caught up in the second wave feminist movement. Jane’s passion for justice is frustrated with her mother’s more legal oriented mindset. The trajectory of the daughter-mother relationship gives the home life some substance and ties the domestic scenes with the main legal plot. Felicity Jones is quite good as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She captures the voice and posture of a familiar public figure and makes her accessible. She’s also quite witty, especially when confronted with sexism, in a way that makes Bader Ginsburg a likeable protagonist.
What Doesn’t: On the Basis of Sex is a bland and generally unchallenging biographical story. It smartly highlights a particular segment of Bader Ginsburg’s life and career but as a legal drama it is rather generic. There is little here that is really challenging. Sexism is generally presented as the fault of devious, backward men, embodied by Erwin Griswold, played by Sam Waterston. Griswold was the Dean of Harvard Law School during Bader Ginsburg’s time there and he was later Solicitor General of the United States during the Moritz case. As played by Waterston, Griswold comes across as a mustache twirling villain and that is the way in which On the Basis of Sex approaches sexism and gender discrimination. It’s all very obvious and trite.
Bottom Line: On the Basis of Sex is an average legal drama. The film tells its story competently and it will play to its intended audience but On the Basis of Sex doesn’t do anything especially interesting either as a biography or as a legal story.
Episode: #735 (January 27, 2019)