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‘Basis of Sex’ Interesting, (somewhat) Factual Look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg

January 10, 2019

By Mark Meszoros

News-Herald/Morning Journal

It’s 1956, and a throng of men in suits is marching. Eventually, we notice the midsection of a woman, as well as a purse. Then, among all these moving feet is a pair of women’s shoes.

All of these seemingly determined folks enter a building and begin to climb a flight of stairs that, we soon learn, resides in a building of the storied Harvard Law School.

The woman is a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, portrayed by Felicity Jones in these, the opening moments of “On the Basis of Sex.”

The largely engrossing biopic is, as so many are, “inspired” by a true story, “On the Basis of Sex” taking its dramatic liberties here and there. Having arrived in select theaters late last year for awards considerations, it is finally seeing a wide release on the week the real Ginsburg, 85, has missed oral arguments for the first time in her 25-year-plus career as a justice of the United States Supreme Court as she recovers from cancer surgery in December.

While it so far hasn’t made many waves in Hollywood’s awards season, “On the Basis of Sex” is highly entertaining, thanks largely to a script by Daniel Stiepleman that focuses on one significant case and, to a less successful degree, Ruth’s marriage to fellow lawyer Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer).

Early on, however, the film spends time on Ruth’s and Martin’s time at Harvard Law, where the former is one of only a select few female students. In a tone-setting scene, she is apprehensive about a dinner that night for her and the other women hosted by the law school’s dean at his home.

“Which one of these makes me look more like a Harvard man?” Ruth asks Martin as she shows him two dresses.

“I am thrilled to report you look nothing like a Harvard man,” he responds.

At the dinner, when the dean (Sam Waterston of “Law & Order” fame) finds other women’s answers as to why they’re in law school unimpressive, Ruth declares she is there to be a more understanding and compassionate wife to her husband, who’s in his second year. (She is pleased with herself; the dean is less impressed.)

In a class, a professor (Stephen Root, “Get Out”) initially refuses to call on Ruth and then gives her a hard time after she elaborates, greatly, on an incomplete response to his question given by a male classmate.

“Is that an answer, Mrs. Ginsburg, or a filibuster?” he asks sarcastically.

The film establishes that Ruth is willing to work beyond hard when Martin falls ill and she -- despite the fact that the pair have a very young daughter -- attends his classes, as well as her own.

When she’s done with school, the fact that she’s smart and more than willing to roll up her sleeves isn’t enough to land her a job with a law firm. When pressed by one interviewer, she admits she has already been turned down 12 times. He seems highly impressed but, after allowing his gaze to fall below her eyes, also passes on her, telling Ruth his firm is a small, tight-knit group and that the wives tend to get jealous.

While Martin, who has landed himself a fine job, presses her to keep pushing toward her goal, she decides to take a job as a professor at Rutgers.

We flash-forward to 1970, when the very liberal Ruth is teaching courses while protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam rage on campus. In her class concerning sex discrimination and the law, a frustrated Ruth has to admit to her young, idealistic students that discrimination based on gender is, for the most part, legal.

Ruth sees her chance to make a real difference in this area after Martin brings to her attention a tax case involving a single man (Chris Mulkey) who has been denied a tax exemption for a caregiver because he is not a woman.

As Ruth and Martin fight for justice for this man -- and, more importantly, to change the law -- they find adversaries in the aforementioned Harvard men, now in U.S. governmental positions. On the Ginsburgs’ side, however, is Mel Wulf (a fiery Justin Theroux), the legal director of the American Civil Liberal Union, even if he at times vehemently disagrees with Ruth about the best courses of action to make real changes in the country.

All of this leads, of course, to a climactic court case. Unfortunately, while these should be the movie’s best scenes, they feel a little clumsy and stilted.

That’s surprising given not just the talent of director Mimi Leder -- who did outstanding work on the incredibly satisfying finale of the underappreciated HBO series “The Leftovers,” which starred Theroux -- but because she made her mark early on directing episodes of hit legal drama “LA Law.” Still, this overall is fine work from the director, whose big-screen credits include “The Peacemaker” (1997) and “Deep Impact” (1998) but who has largely directed in television for the last two decades.

She and newcomer Stiepleman do lay it on a bit thick with the relationship between Ruth and then-teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny of “Bad Times at the El Royale”), who for a big chunk of the movie feels her mother is all talk and little action when it comes to equality for women.

“I don’t know where she gets her stubbornness!” Ruth exclaims.

“Can’t imagine,” Marty responds.

Hammer (“Call Me by Your Name”) is solid in this supporting role, but “On the Basis of Sex” is anchored by the nuanced-enough performance by Jones (“The Theory of Everything,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”). Your mileage may vary here depending on your political leanings, but she makes it easy to root for Ruth.

Like Theroux and Hammer, Kathy Bates ads a bit to the film as attorney Dorothy Kenyon, a renowned feminist and one of the founders of the ACLU. If anything, she’s underused.

The guess here is that you may get a fuller look at Ginsburg’s life by watching last year’s CNN-presented documentary “RGB.” “On the Basis of Sex” is what it is -- a celebration of an impressive woman that’s both limited in scope and not altogether factual -- but it is a good watch.

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