“On the Basis of Sex” approaches Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life like a weekly television series.
It doesn’t cover the Supreme Court justice’s complete career, but a specific slice of it. Easily, there could be dozens of sequels if this does well.
Working with her husband (played by Armie Hammer), Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) defends a male caregiver who isn’t able to get a tax deduction because the role is viewed as one for a female.
The two attorneys dig in on the case, work with the ACLU and prep for what looks like a losing battle.
Director Mimi Leder does a fine job setting the scene, letting us know what the world was like when the case was heard. But there’s a lot of Ginsburg’s life that needed tracking before and after this point. We see her entering Harvard and dealing with the old boys’ club there, but certainly she accomplished more than just standing up to chauvinists. When husband Marty is sidelined by testicular cancer, she attends his classes and does double duty. We get a glimpse of the feminist movement, too, but nothing pulls focus away from Jones’ Ginsburg, who seems like the Ally McBeal of another generation.
Jones has a hit-and-miss accent (you can hear her British roots coming through every now and then) and a straightforward stride. “RGB” revealed much more personality.
Hammer is pretty straight arrow, too, giving us little of the personality we’d expect.
Because “On the Basis of Sex” was written by a Ginsburg nephew, there aren’t warts and all. At best, we discover she wasn’t jumping on the same bandwagon as her daughter. Rather than march in the streets, she uses logic in the courtroom.
Leder and company could have gone into greater detail about her methods – and how she parlayed this case to the Supreme Court.
When the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg (spoiler alert) shows up, questions emerge. Among them: Who were the three who voted against her when she was confirmed as a justice.
“On the Basis of Sex” features plenty of familiar TV faces (Sam Waterston and Stephen Root among them) as those Ginsburg tilted against. Again, because Leder doesn’t color outside the lines, it’s hard to see how her story is different from others. It is, of course, but the storytelling is so routine it’s hard to muster excitement when Jones delivers her big speech.
“On the Basis of Sex” needed to take risks. Ginsburg-level risks.