In the opening sequence of On the Basis of Sex, director Mimi Leder’s rather hagiographic look at the early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there is an on-the-nose visual metaphor that sums up the picture’s central theme. As a new crop of students floods the halls of Harvard Law School, it’s immediately visibile that the skirted, bright-eyed, and confident Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is the only female figure we can glimpse among a teeming horde of suit-and-tie-clad white males. When the throngs are seated and listening to the opening exhortations of Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), Ginsburg glances around and spies a handful of other women in the room–but it’s clear that they are vastly and unfairly outnumbered.
Pushing back against gender discrimination and bias became the defining issue of Ginsburg’s career and remains as important today as it was when she first walked through those doors in 1956. And it’s what she constantly comes into conflict with as she makes her way up the legal ladder–mostly personified through Waterston’s preening Griswold, who serves as an almost comically one-dimensional villain, but apparent in a hundred other ways small and large. Yet despite the resonance of that theme in so much of On the Basis of Sex, there is no nuance or shading to the movie. Ginsburg herself, along with her husband and occasional legal partner, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), is presented as practically perfect in every way. While she may very well be, that makes for a boring film.
The first act of this gratingly pious biopic focuses on the formative years of Ginsburg’s career as well as her and Martin’s marriage. And to be fair, it refreshingly avoids the stock “career vs. family” crisis that movies about women always seem to boil down to. But it’s also free of any real tension regarding anything else. Martin overcomes cancer while remaining a dutiful house husband and sometimes legal partner for his spouse, she takes on his coursework while he’s ill, and the two seem to plow past any obstacle thrown their way, babies and law books nestled comfortably under their arms. Ruth battles discrimination at law firms while eventually finding her place as a professor, and Martin comes up with the tax case that would change their lives.
The rest of the film centers on that one case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, that would crystallize many of Ginsburg’s concerns and become a landmark ruling. In the case, a single, never-married man (played sympathetically by Chris Mulkey) is denied a deduction for expenses for the care of his dependent invalid mother, solely on the basis of him being a bachelor and the deduction being limited to women, divorces, and widowers. The arbitrary nature of the denial is because Moritz was a man, giving the Ginsburgs and ACLU attorney Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) a means to challenge gender bias in a back-door way that would reverberate for generations.
The problem is that it’s difficult as hell to cinematically convey drama and even stakes in a case that deals mainly with the vagaries of the tax code, and Leder–who spent a lot of time on action films like Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before moving to some sterling TV work for much of the last 12 years–fails to adjust accordingly. She relies instead of montages of people throwing open books and scanning down rows of numbers, along with loads of expositional dialogue (thanks to a wooden screenplay from Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman) that will likely leave viewers heavy-eyed instead of inspired.
As Ginsburg, Jones is adequate. There’s little hint of the real woman’s Brooklyn upbringing in her accent, although Jones’ British one occasionally slips through the clipped manner of speaking she does employ. But whether it’s the script or Jones’ performance, Ginsburg never comes alive as an actual human being to us (although she does get off some nice feminist zingers, mostly aimed at the perpetually scowling Waterston). Neither does the angelic Martin. The best performance is by Theroux, as the perpetually manic and frazzled Wulf, his eyes lighting up at the potential of the case even as he worries about the possible legal landmines that he and the Martins could step on. Cailie Spaeny also provides some nice moments as the Ginsburgs’ daughter Jane, who can fearlessly go toe-to-toe with her mother.
The significance of the Moritz case, and of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s continued work over the next 46 years, including her quarter-century with the Supremes, cannot be understated: it’s arguably handled much more deftly and comprehensively in the documentary RBG released earlier this year. Fitting her life and legal legacy into a standard biopic template just seems counter-productive and formulaic. On the Basis of Sex also completely ignores the cultural context around it, in which the future of the United States as a (barely) functioning democracy lies in grave danger should Ginsburg not outlast the monster currently squatting in the White House. Nonetheless, that note at the end of the movie that Ginsburg was advanced to the Supreme Court in 1993 on a vote of 96 to 3 seems amusingly almost like sci-fi.
There is also a larger discussion surrounding all this: Who is this film for? No one who voted for Donald Trump is going to scramble for a seat to see this, and while it may attract dedicated lefties in progressive strongholds like Los Angeles and New York, even they might be wondering why the movie feels so much like an obligation. For one thing, political movies now are likely the last thing anyone wants to see, especially when the subject is a still-living Supreme Court Justice. Her story is still being written. Hopefully for years to come.
It doesn’t help either when the film itself, while well-meaning all around, is so tediously and unconditionally worshipful of its subject and thesis. Perhaps a more interesting movie could be based on Ginsburg’s reportedly close friendship with late fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The two couldn’t be farther apart ideologically, yet somehow found common ground as human beings and friends. In a world where that no longer seems possible for many of us, it would be a hell of a lot more interesting than a movie this blandly honorific.
On the Basis of Sex premiered at AFI Fest on Nov. 8. It opens in theaters on Dec. 25, 2018.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye