Our Hero: An 'On the Basis of Sex' film review
by Will Lindus
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a national hero, and her contributions to the body politic, especially women, will resound for generations to come. I’m not here to argue this point, but I do make it clearly upfront because any biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is naturally going to be viewed through the lens of one’s own political biases. That’s just the world we live in these days.
So, with that bias in play, I was predisposed to excitement over ‘On the Basis of Sex,’ which tells the story of the Notorious RBG from her enrollment in Harvard Law School in 1956 through her work with the ACLU in the early 1970s as she strategically argued cases which eroded the strength of gender discrimination laws. While the performances, direction, and the story being told all do their jobs dutifully, the end result is a film that can at best be qualified as ‘decent.’ There is an aesthetic that would-be Oscar contenders tend to inject into their films; certain melodramatic character beats, a muted color palette that attempts to evoke nostalgia, and historical narratives which attempt to contextualize the ‘now’ using the events of the ‘then.’ All of those are on display in ‘On the Basis of Sex,’ and it is perhaps this reliance on the familiar that leaves the film feeling unremarkable in the crowd of similar films.
Felicity Jones is tapped to play Ginsburg herself, and her performance is effective. She attempts to replicate a Jewish Brooklyn accent which feels overbearing and shaky in places, but beyond that, she does a fine enough job of portraying RBG’s steady confidence in the face of adversity. More compelling is Armie Hammer who reminds us just how charming and likable he is in the role of Martin Ginsburg, Ruth’s husband. The film does an excellent job of showing the strength of their union, both as emotional support structures to one another and as a pair of brilliant legal minds who help one another navigate the complexities of the cases they take on. Maybe there’s a quibble in that Martin’s portrayal is a bit milquetoast in places, but then, the real Martin passed away in 2010, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is still alive, and her accounts of her husband are all glowingly positive. Manufacturing domestic drama to elevate narrative stakes is tacky, so I ultimately appreciate the approach they took.
However, the villains of ‘On the Basis of Sex’ are less forgivable in how one-dimensional they appear. At their most civil, they are stuffy and condescending men who bristle at the mere notion that a woman might practice law. As they are pushed, they become increasingly indignant of the notion, and actively pursue the adherence to laws which discriminate, well, on the basis of sex. And trust me, these mentalities did (and, sadly, still do) exist, and they were as wrong then as they are now. The problem with this portrayal isn’t in the accuracy but in the execution; we’ve seen these characters too many times in films just like this to be interesting.
The same holds true for the more technical elements of the film. From cinematography to color correction, from score to overall narrative structure, every part of ‘On the Basis of Sex’ feels like it is directly lifted from the template for creating effective biopics. The hues mute just the right way, the score swells at the right moments, and all of it works… but in a way that feels safe and familiar. There are no chances taken with the story-telling techniques, and the film suffers a bit for this.
Bottom Line: This is a shorter review than normal because, well, there isn’t as much to say. ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is good, it just feels too much like every Oscar-bait film that has come before it to be remarkable. Go and see it for yourself, make up your own mind; I’m sure you’ll have a good enough time. But if you are on the fence, perhaps check out ‘RBG’ instead, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that came out earlier this year. Pound for pound, it is the stronger of the two films, and is very much worth your time and attention.
But again, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a national hero, and I’ll fight anyone that says otherwise.
3 out of 5 Bear Paws