The RBG Origin Story

On the Basis of Sex
(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Mimi Leder, Writ. Daniel Stiepleman
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Jack Raynor  
Martin Ginsburg Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Every good superhero deserves an origin story. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the cloaked crusader of 2018, gets her turn in the biopic On the Basis of Sex with a spunky performance by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) charting her journey towards becoming a Supreme Court Justice and the meme-able “The Notorious RBG.” On the Basis of Sex is the second entry in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg cinematic universe of 2018 and while it’s a perfectly decent and timely film, it’s neither great nor essential viewing for anyone who saw Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG. The doc is not cinematic masterpiece, either, so an RBG reboot seems inevitable.

The documentary surveys the entirety of Ginsburg’s career and the drama zeroes in on her law school days, determination to become a lawyer, and her victory with the cause of Charles Moritz, which sees Ginsburg use the case of gender discrimination against a man to make a case for equality. Both films highlight the pros and cons of encapsulating a landmark life and career into a feature-length running time. Their conclusions are basically the same and both portraits tread hagiography—and what the Ginsburgs lack in quality they more than make up for in relevance, especially when one notices how uncannily one of the justices to whom Jones argues her case in the grand finale resembles Brett Kavanagh.

The dramatization is well timed for the #TimesUp era, too, as the young RBG encounters horrible sexism and systemic inequity that continues to this day in the very institution she represents. As RBG becomes one of the first women to attend Harvard Law, she finds herself unfortunately unwelcome in the old boys’ club. The film trots out numerous examples as RBG attends events with her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer, a nice spin in the “wife” role), who receives exponentially more respect than she does. The film is more successful with a scene where RBG attends a class dinner party hosted by the dean, who makes each female student tell the table why she is “taking” a man’s place. His use of language is blunt and condescending, while Ginsburg’s argument in her defense turns outdated gender norms back on the dean as she states that she is only at school to understand her husband’s work. This is the world in which Ginsburg fights and continues to fight: a playing field for men and women that isn’t level no matter how hard one works and succeeds.

Every other scene in On the Basis of Sex features these sorts of comments. Everyday sexism is as (or more) common than a “hello” or a “good-bye,” On the Basis of Sex features far more pigs than it does gentleman as the guardians of the patriarchy work to ensure that women like RBG fail to advance despite their obvious merits. The script by Daniel Stiepleman, unfortunately, reads like the effort of a man trying to understand the experience of gender discrimination. The delivery can be pretty ham-fisted, and despite the best intentions of the film, On the Basis of Sex makes a good case for the importance of continuing Ginsburg’s fight within the film industry and opening more doors to women. The choice of having Mimi Leder director, on the other hand, is admirable as she opts for a no frills biopic style that ensures the voice of her hero remains the dominant force in every scene. The scenes of domestic life in the Ginsburg home are more successful in conveying Ruth’s fight than her encounters in the workplace are simply because they show audiences firsthand how hard she works, juggling domestic duties with her studies and taking on Martin’s classwork when a cancer scare prevents him from attending school.

Jones is rather good despite being an odd casting choice since she bears little physical resemblance to Ginsburg. Anyone who has seen RBG will also recall that Ginsburg spoke proudly of her ability to keep cool in the face of gross injustice and discrimination, so some of Jones’s bigger moments that see Ginsburg lose her cool might be off the mark despite being inevitable necessities in the service of good drama. RBG is a great character and fans of the documentary know what a hip octogenarian the judge can be. The younger Ginsburg isn’t nearly as fun and her Jones’s no-nonsense performance takes a while to find its groove, but her triumphant courtroom scene at the end is a fitting transformation of a superhero coming to life. Whatever the inaccuracies may arise in the performance, Jones nails Ginsburg’s spirit and essence in while reminding audiences of the strength of character as Supreme Court Justice should embody.

On the Basis of Sex opens in theatres Dec. 25.