On the Basis of Sex
2018, PG-13, 120 min. Directed by Mimi Leder. Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Chris Mulkey, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Jan. 4, 2019
The second film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in less than a year forgoes the traditional biopic formula for a tidy, well-acted courtroom drama centered on the case that kicked off her decades-long career fighting against gender-based discrimination and for equal rights. The film opens to a sea of men marching toward Harvard Law School to the sound of an actual drumroll, establishing the boys’ club atmosphere we are heading into in one single take. It doesn’t bother with any details that pre-date Ginsburg’s enrollment there in 1959; it sets up a few key points – marriage, children, and a move to NYC where she attended Columbia – and then skips ahead to 1970 where it can mine the material it really wants to: Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.
Charles Moritz (Mulkey) was a Colorado man who was denied a tax break on his payments to a caretaker for his mother, something he was refused because he was a bachelor and because he was a man. At the time, Ginsburg was working as a professor; she was unable to gain employment as a lawyer (though she finished first in her class) on the basis of her sex. With the help of husband Marty (Hammer), himself a tax attorney, and a friend at the ACLU, Legal Director Mel Wulf, (Theroux) she argued the case before three (white, male) judges, and you can probably guess what the outcome was.
It’s obvious that first-time scriptwriter Daniel Stiepleman is keenly aware of the current #MeToo climate. As Ruth (Jones) is practicing for the courtroom, there’s a knowing wink to audiences as her male cohorts suggest that she smile at the judges. There’s humor in their imagined future as an absurd situation where things are more equal because they are describing our reality. They believe the American family is “at stake,” and then there’s a clever cut to the Ginsburgs happily making dinner together at home. Other scenes are a bit harder to read. As Ginsburg’s male opponents strategize how to destroy her in court, the Washington Monument looms in the background like a giant dick, and I wasn’t sure if that was meant to be outwardly funny (I found it a bit absurd). Jones makes a fine Ginsburg – especially in the mouth, lips pursed expectantly – but something in Hammer’s resigned manner paints a Marty that is more ineffectual than stoic, and the chemistry between them is pretty middle-of-the-road.
On the Basis of Sex is in no way an all-encompassing, timelined portrait. (The documentary RBG provides much more detail while managing to convey the importance of the Ginsburgs’ partnership.) It’s a bit emotionally manipulative – though, to an extent, all cinema is – particularly in the chosen dialogue (which I assume was lifted directly from court transcripts) and a final scene switcheroo. It’s another effort to solidify her sainthood. However, it’s also an easily digestible outline of Ginsburg, her career, and why her work is so important. It’s a biting piece of herstory that we need right now.