Imagine being one of the towering judicial figures of your generation and having two dull, wimpy, blandly respectful, painfully unimaginative films made about you in the same year. Right on the dragging heels of Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s superficial and sycophantic documentary RBG comes On the Basis of Sex, a bleary-eyed book report of a biopic about the early years of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The flavorless, barely tolerable non-drama of On the Basis of Sex was probably intended as good movie medicine, but if this is the cure, I’ll take my chances with the disease.
Granted, any great judge probably lives a generally undramatic life, but that only means that crafting great drama from that life requires filmmaking with the guts and fearlessness of a Ginsburg. Instead, TV veteran Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward) and first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman deliver a pandering and simpering take. It will probably be given a pass by the people who can’t differentiate between the quality of a film and the quality of the people depicted in that film, but artistic cowardice is a sorry honor for such a brave woman.
British actress Felicity Jones stars as Brooklyn native Ruth, while Armie Hammer does thankless work as Martin Ginsburg, her husband and fellow lawyer. They banter like a married couple in a poorly written facsimile of a studio-era comedy, yet they never generate anything resembling screen chemistry. Both actors behave as though giving personality to their characters would be disrespectful, resulting in an anti-immersive movie that plays like a history lesson blocked by a velvet rope. Even Kathy Bates fails to provide any spark in a small role as civil rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon.
The film opens in 1956, the year when Ruth entered Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in her class. At a faculty dinner, jerkwad dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) forces each female student to stand up and explain why she is occupying a place that “could have gone to a man.” Ruth powers through the institutionalized sexism to reach the top of her class, even sitting in on Martin’s classes while he recovers from testicular cancer, but she still can’t find work at a law firm.
Every time it feels like the film is starting to gain some dramatic steam, it flashes ahead to the next bullet point in Ruth’s early life, and all the momentum is lost. Just as we’re getting invested in her struggle, the film flashes ahead to 1970, which leads to an obligatory needle drop on “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers, rather than anything pertinent to the protagonist. The film is depersonalized enough without such nostalgic abstractions.
As in RBG, the real-life Ruth’s participation in On the Basis of Sex amounts to a grimly dutiful cameo. Yet she still exudes more dignity in her few seconds of screen time than any of the actors do over the course of two-plus hours.