Written by Aaron Radcliff:
Biopics can be a tricky thing. If you decide to make it on someone not that interesting, finding enough things to focus on can be difficult. If you make it about someone larger than life, you run the risk of being overstuffed and convoluted (looking at you, Bohemian Rhapsody). What manages to separate the Raging Bull‘s from the Amelia‘s of the world is how the writers and director can make the complex easy to understand and interesting while simultaneously limiting the trivialization of the person/events in their life. On the Basis of Sex manages to accomplish the right and the wrong.
The film begins with first-year Harvard Law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer) in the middle of their education. We then get flashes of important moments in their lives until we finally end up in 1970 when the couple decides to take on a tax law case involving male-based sexual discrimination. What follows is a half-biopic/half-court drama that highlights the struggles Ruth faces as she tries to not only win her first case but also change the whole legal landscape of American society.
On the Basis of Sex is certainly a well-intentioned film that was made with admiration at the forefront. However, that admiration seems to have glasses that are a couple shades too rosy that end up overlooking a few fascinating aspects about Ruth, her family dynamic, and the case itself. We see the sexism Ruth faces on multiple occasions, which is the boogeyman throughout the film, but there are other things that happen or are mentioned that are glossed over or forgotten. As it struggles to decide if it’s a biopic or courtroom drama, it causes certain points to never truly be explored or addressed. One particular sticks out: During law school, Martin is struck with testicular cancer and has about a 5% chance of survival. While he undergoes treatment, Ruth attends her classes as well as his and collects notes for him and helps write his papers, all while also raising their daughter. This whole incident takes about three minutes and suddenly we’re a couple years in the future. A similar time jump happens when she’s trying to find a job as a lawyer before finally becoming a professor. We see people say sexist things and we’re told about difficult moments in life, but we never really see Ruth have to deal with it. She just magically makes it through. As a result, we don’t get the feeling that she is hardened and resilient, we just have to assume she is.
The film’s second half is simultaneously its high and low point. As we focus on the case, we finally get to see the tough-as-nails Ginsburg and the dynamic she shares with her husband and the people around her. Yet again, the case feels more interesting than her and THIS is where my issue with the film lies. Ginsburg is an interesting person and I want to know more about her and her life. The case she took is interesting and I got to learn about it, but the movie can’t decide which should be the focus and as a result, the overall experience is hurt. If we had a movie only focusing entirely on the case or a full-fledged biopic, then perhaps we could’ve gotten some clarity.
Don’t take the criticism the wrong way. It’s still a well-done movie. Some of the characters admittedly feel a bit miscast, but it’s certainly well acted. Jones and Hammer have charisma separately and meld together with a chemistry that comes off the screen. We also have a minor subplot involving daughter Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny), who was my favorite character, and her interactions with Ruth. Her actions and dialogue portray her as the fire and brimstone, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it” personality that I was expecting to see more of from Ruth.
I made the same comment in my Bohemian Rhapsody review, but the movie feels like a CliffsNotes adaptation. We get a brisk overview of Ginsburg’s early life and a surface-level understanding of the case itself, but nothing more. This all culminates with the final shot with the real-life Ginsburg walking up the steps of the Supreme Court. Nothing really feels all that heartfelt and instead feels more like a fluff piece. Well-intentioned it may be, but a fluff piece nonetheless.
I truly find Ginsburg to be interesting and I’m happy we got a big screen adaptation of her early work. However, the lack of commitment to one type of story coupled with what feels like hollow admiration rather than genuine care or interest runs the risk of leaving you feeling unfulfilled. There are enough shining moments that will make you happy you saw it and learned some things, but you’d be forgiven for being kind of annoyed that more effort wasn’t put forth, like finding scentless potpourri instead of fresh rose petals.
Score: 6 out of 10
Image via Focus Features