On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) ★★★

Felicity Jones and Justin Theroux star in “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Entertaining & Influential

Justices on the Supreme Court do not often reach celebrity status or earn fun monikers, but that is not the case with Ruth Bader Ginsburg or “the Notorious RBG” as the media sometimes refers to her. Only the second woman to be named to the Supreme Court, her path to the highest court in the land was not easy as she studied law at a time when few women were admitted to law school and few law firms hired female lawyers. In the new film, On the Basis of Sex, which focuses on Ginsburg’s early career and first interactions with the Supreme Court, audiences will clearly see that Ginsburg, who tirelessly fought for women’s equality, is one of the most uniquely deserving justices to sit on the bench.

The film begins on Ruth’s (Felicity Jones, Rogue One, 2016) first day at Harvard Law School where she is one of a dozen women surrounded by hundreds of male classmates. At a welcoming reception for these few women, Erwin Griswold, the dean of the law school (Sam Watterson, Godless, 2017) asks each of them why they deserve to take the place of a man (no, this is not a joke). Although Ruth gives a convincing answer, some women do not, and are then chastised by the dean. Despite this rude welcome, in her first class the following day, Ruth demonstrates that she won’t be intimidated and corrects a classmate in front of the entire class about a case they are studying, impressing both her fellow students and teacher (Stephen Root, Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 2018).

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Ruth continues to excel in the classroom, even earning a spot on the exclusive Harvard Law Review, while balancing her life as a young mother and wife. Ruth’s act-balancing will become more daunting, when her husband Marty (Armie Hammer, Sorry to Bother You, 2018), who is an older law student at Harvard, is suddenly diagnosed with cancer. Now, in addition to her normal course work and taking care of Marty and their daughter, Ruth even starts attending his classes to take notes so that he doesn’t fall behind. Later, when Marty recovers and lands a job in New York at a top law firm, Ruth requests permission to complete her last year of coursework at Columbia Law School and receive her Harvard law degree. Dean Griswold denies Ruth’s request, despite there being a precedent for this special accommodation, and instead Ruth obtains her law degree from Columbia. After graduation, despite her sterling academic record, Ruth is shut out by law firms in New York City, and must settle for a job teaching at Rutgers Law School. Despite this small set back, Ruth doesn’t stop fighting back against a system that discriminates against women.

As the women’s rights movement gains steam, Ginsburg, a national expert on gender-based classification laws, is looking for an opportunity to change the legal precedent that allows women to be discriminated against. Fortunately, Marty, a tax attorney, found an unusual case where a man was denied the right to receive caretaking tax benefits (for his elderly mother) because he wasn’t a married man. Ruth, who works alongside her husband and attorneys from the ACLU, led by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, The Spy Who Dumped Me, 2018), works tirelessly on her arguments before the team finds out that the Supreme Court will hear their case. Now both Ginsburgs will argue against the government’s case, and ironically, will be pitted against a team backed by Dean Griswold, now the U.S. solicitor general.

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

On the Basis of Sex is a very solid representation of Ruth Ginsburg and her fight for equal protection of the law that made her such a respected figure in the legal community. Felicity Jones, a British actress, does a respectable job of mastering RBG’s distinct Brooklyn accent and handles her courtroom arguments as well. She convincingly conveys the pains that Ruth had to endure to earn her position. Armie Hamer as Marty is slightly wooden in his portrayal of the likable and supportive husband, but it doesn’t take away from the film, as this is really Ruth’s story (as it should be). Although this biopic does a good job of portraying some of the seminal moments of Ruth’s life, it doesn’t necessarily capture much of Ginsburg’s personality. Instead, she’s only portrayed as a tireless social justice warrior. This is where the documentary, RBG, outshines On the Basis of Sex because her life is so rich and interesting that to focus on a small sliver doesn’t do her justice (pardon the pun).

This is not to say that the film isn’t worthy, however. Director Mimi Leder (The Leftovers, 2014-2017) and writer Daniel Stiepleman deserve kudos for a faithful representation, but if you must pick between the two, RBG is the superior experience.

Bottom Line: A view into the world and accomplishments of Ruth Bader Ginsberg have been a long time coming. The biopic, On the Basis of Sex, successfully spotlights Ginsberg’s journey and the challenges she faced along the way to the highest court in the land. For a deeper look into Ginsberg’s personality and exactly what made her tick, audiences may more appreciate the documentary, RBG.

Credits: Directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman

Starring: Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Armie Hammer (Martin Ginsburg), Justin Theroux (Mel Wulf), Kathy Bates (Dorothy Kenyon), Sam Waterson (Erwin Griswold), Cailee Spaeny (Jane Ginsburg), Callum Shoniker (James Steven Ginsburg), Jack Reynor (James Bozarth), and Stephen Root (Professor Brown)

Studio: Focus Features

Running Time: 120 minutes

Jessica DeLong © January 11, 2019