Don’t you love Ruth Bader Ginsburg? So do I! She’s a tireless champion for her belief in equality with a scholarly, deeply held respect for the framework of our government, constitution and judiciary. And she’s been so for so long and so consistently, her drive and resilience put professional athletes to shame. Lots and lots of us love Ginsburg and we didn’t need two different puff pieces about her this year to make us feel good about that. The new one, Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, is a worse offender than the previous one, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, because, as a documentary, that one at least couldn’t be quite as egregiously phony as Leder’s biopic.
Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman begin with Ginsburg’s (Felicity Jones) enrollment at Harvard, in which she’s immediately forced to make a case for why she should be there instead of a man. That’s not figurative, to be clear. The dean (Sam Waterston) literally makes each female student stand up and argue their case in this way. This is something that really happened and Ginsburg’s jokey but pointed deflection is one of the few good character moments in the film for Jones. Then, after touching on the rest of her academic career and the early years of her marriage to another lawyer, Marty (Armie Hammer), and her mothering of two children, On the Basis of Sex skips ahead more than a decade and settles on its true narrative thrust, Ginsburg’s taking up of a case in which a man is denied a tax credit for the hiring of a nurse to help take care of his mother as that credit is given only to women.
There’s no real question about whether or not she’s going to win the case. And that’s not because it’s based on a real life case she did win, as covered in RBG. No, there’s no question because this is the kind of uninspired great woman biopic that has little room for anything but triumphs that affirm the pre-existing sentiments of the filmmakers and the presumptive audience. When Ginsburg makes one of the movie’s many, many sound bite proclamations, “Small mistakes are glaring when you stick out,” she’s relaying an infuriating truism about the requirement of women to work twice as hard for half the respect and recognition as men. In the moment, though, the line is unintentionally ironic. This version of Ginsburg never seems to make mistakes, so she should be fine.
Moments like that, with quotable quotes, are so frequent in On the Basis of Sex, they start to dictate the rhythm of the film. You keep anticipating the one that’s going to end the scene. When she tells her client (Chris Mulkey) she can get his ruling overturned, he says, “So the judge was wrong?” “No,” Ginsburg replies, “the law is wrong.” Commiserating with Marty over their teenage daughter, Ginsburg huffs, “I don’t know where she gets her stubbornness!” “I can’t imagine,” Marty lets slip snarkily. It’s an entire movie made up of little trailers.
It’s dismaying and ironic that this movie about a woman who has dedicated her life to challenging assumptions would go so far out of its way to discourage critical thinking about its subject. One shot, though, contains an exception that sticks out as an example of the better movie this could have been. As Ginsburg walks down a city street with her daughter (Cailee Spaeny), they pass but seem not to notice a billboard for Cosmopolitan magazine with a scantily clad woman on it. The often bickering mother and daughter represents changing modes of feminist in the early 1970s and very well may have a different of opinion about the publication and imagery (diminishing or liberating?), given that Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown had taken over as editor in 1965, finally installing a team of female writers and steering the magazine toward a sex-positive identity, even though some feminists would still be burning copies a few years later. That single shot gives the viewer more to chew on than the entire rest of the movie because, for once, it’s not telling them what to think.
After that, if you’re going to think about anything during On the Basis of Sex, it will probably be what you’re going to have for dinner that night or whether you should stop for gas on the way home because the movie is so programmatic that you barely need to pay attention. Unless, that is, you’re playing some kind of count-the-tropes game. If so, you’ll get a big win when Ginsburg steps up to the lectern to make her closing arguments in the big case and the microphone sounds off with a brief blast of feedback in the way that only happens to nervous characters in movies and never to anyone in real life. Will she overcome this devastating setback and win the day? Stay tuned to On the Basis of Sex or any one of ten thousand other movies to find out.