Clichéd storytelling undercuts Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy in On the Basis of Sex
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become quite the cult figure at her advanced age. She’s been honored in memes and through Halloween costumes, played by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live, and given a gangsta-style nickname — The Notorious RBG — that was appropriated for a recent documentary about her life, RBG.
That streak continues with the biopic On the Basis of Sex. It focuses on the early life of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as she becomes one of the first women accepted at Harvard Law School, a professor at Rutgers University, and a leading proponent for gender equality.
The main thrust of the film is a case in which Ginsburg, with help from her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), tries a back-door approach toward getting women treated the same as men. The case involves a man being denied a caregiver tax credit because the law assumed women should be the ones at home. With obstacles at every corner, Ginsburg is shown to be relentless in her goal of toppling all laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.
Directed by Mimi Leder and written by first-time writer Daniel Stiepleman, the film is an up-and-down affair. Early on and then occasionally throughout the two-hour running time, the filmmakers take a facile approach. In trying to demonstrate the difficulties Ginsburg faced as a woman in a male-dominated world, they pile on cliché after cliché, a technique that serves neither her nor the story well.
Still, it’s hard not to get swept up in her righteous fight. The biggest thing the filmmakers do right is involve her family in the plot. Along with Marty, Ginsburg’s daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), is shown to have a significant impact on her thinking, and it’s this personal nature that keeps the film engaging.
By the time the film gets to the “big court scene™,” it’s a constant push-and-pull between the stereotypical nature of the story and the effective performances of the actors. In the end, the actors win out, but the battle is closer than it should have been.
Jones and Hammer complement each other well, portraying a relationship that’s idealized yet still seemingly honest. Other notable performances include Spaeny and Justin Theroux as ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf.
On the Basis of Sex makes a good case for why Ginsburg is as revered as she is, but it could’ve been even better had it not taken the easy way out at times. See this film for the performances, and then RBG to get the full scope of this honorable woman.