The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is definitely a compelling one, and something people should hear. Unfortunately, On the Basis of Sex (2018) chooses to present her story with a script and look that feels like a mediocre melodrama that belongs on the Lifetime Network despite having a tremendous cast. Moreover, it seems to forget a key theory in film making: show, don’t tell. Despite the many issues with the film’s presentation, the charming performances and the true story – aided by having seen RBG (2018) this year – helped make the experience (mostly) enjoyable.
On the Basis of Sex is enjoyable despite many of the cheesier choices
On the Basis of Sex follows Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) from her early days at Harvard Law School until her first trial, where she fights against laws that discriminate based on gender. It also showcases her loving relationship with Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), the struggles of motherhood with her children, daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) and son James (Callum Shoniker), and the various figures who were resistant to a female lawyer and her perceived crusade.
Ginsburg is an important figure in our recent history, having essentially bridged the gap between men and women in the eyes of the law. She’s a timid figure with a powerful mind and forcious drive to fight for what she believes in. Watch this movie, and you’ll hear all about how great she is, or what a pain in the ass she is from the various men in her life. There are several scenes where Martin defends her to Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Martin’s boss, or to Ruth herself. Most of the time, we see Ruth doubting herself or seething angerly at the injustices being pointed in her direction. Rarely do we get to see how great she really is, but the men around her sure want the audience to know. While I wasn’t around – nor do I know Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the documentary seems to paint a picture where she did a lot of that proving of ability. It appears that this is a major misstep on the writer’s part, as though there is no way a woman could have done what she did without the support of a supportive man. However, that’s not to take away from the relationship, which is well documented in RBG as well – because they did have a long and happy marriage where they both complimented each other.
Weakening the film even more is the cheesy dialogue, poor camerawork, and s score that shows up far too often. The close-ups used in the intense moments have this superficial quality that really elevates the true elements to melodramatic levels. There are throwaway lines, like when Martin and Ruth are getting a little frisky and Martin says, “Mrs. Ginsburg,” in a playfully scolding way, which seems to come out of a bad soap opera and not a compelling biopic. There is even an attempt to heighten Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), Professor Brown (Stephen Root), and Jim Bozarth (Jack Reynor) to villainous characters conspiring to discredit Ruth’s case. While it’s possible this was true, the film presents it like they should have been twisting their mustaches.
The big highlights are definitely the two leads. Jones and Hammer have great chemistry, and Hammer’s charm really shines through the character of Martin. It’s hard not to appreciate both of them, even with the words that often feel scripted. Spaeny does a good job as well, and is proving to be an up-and-coming superstar with her role in this film and Bad Times at the El Royale (2018). Her role as Jane creates some of the more enjoyable, conflict-filled scenes, and also one of the cheesier moments – when Ginsburg realizes that the world has already changed, but the law hasn’t kept up. Still, they are all performing as well as they can within the medicore script.
On The Basis of Sex is still a compelling story of an American hero. The world as we know it today would likely not look the same if not for RBG. Thus, it’s a film that is worth watching if you are against documentaries, but RBG (2018) is the way to go. On the Basis of Sex earns the Decent Watch rating.