In 2019, a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court justice carries a monstrous weight of expectations on its shoulders.
The past year included more #MeToo reckonings, the Brett Kavanaugh saga, the detention of thousands of children in camps along the US/Mexico border, and a midterm election in America marred with claims voter suppression (not to mention RBG herself breaking three ribs) so the origin story of a liberal female Supreme Court superhero is a heavy lift.
On The Basis of Sex does its best. It’s a solid example of the genre, which offers some truly inspiring moments, but somehow also already feels dated, a relic of a simpler time when we believed that doing the right thing and persevering ensured success and justice.
Directed by Mimi Leder, the film’s action is divided over three momentous periods in young Ruth’s (Felicity Jones) life: 1956, when she begins her first year at Harvard Law School, and has to juggle sexism and misogyny, mountains of classwork, motherhood, and her beloved husband Marty’s (Armie Hammer) colon cancer diagnosis; the early 1960s, when Ruth, who graduated at the top of her class, is turned down for jobs at 12 law firms on account of her gender; and the early 1970s, when Ruth, now a law professor at Rutgers University, takes up her first gender discrimination case (1972’s Moritz v. Commissioner) alongside Marty, and ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux).
That last part takes up the bulk of the film’s run time, but in many ways, it’s the middle segment — the shortest — that builds up the most interesting tension.
The film establishes early on that RGB is an exceptional person. She’s phenomenally smart and driven, able to grasp complicated legal concepts quickly and then articulate them precisely. She can multitask to the extreme. By all logic, she’s a woman who should go on to do great things. And though we, as an audience, know that she does, On The Basis Of Sex deftly puts forward the idea that it wasn’t always a given.
One scene in particular, in which Ruth and Marty attend a work party of his in New York, sticks with you. Ruth’s nerves are already frayed from a previous run-in with teenage daughter Jane (a wonderful Cailee Spaeny), who basically calls her a Stepford wife sellout for not letting her go to a Gloria Steinem rally. (Offhand comments from Marty’s law partners like, “You’re a smart girl Ruthie, you married a star,” certainly don’t help.) But it’s later, as they’re walking home, that things get interesting. Ruth confronts Marty, telling him she doesn’t appreciate being put down in front of his colleagues. He responds with confusion: she’s a law professor, helping mould the next generation of lawyers — what does she have to feel insecure about? But that’s just it. Ruth isn’t satisfied taking a backseat to the young women in her class. She wants to do great things herself. Those are messy, jealous, petty feelings that real women have.
On The Basis of Sex is most effective when it brings Ruth out of the realm of superhero justice crusader and back down to earth. Her sometimes strained relationship with daughter Jane is a good example. Ruth is shown to be proud of her daughter, but deep down, she also resents her a little bit for having opportunities that she didn’t. That generational divide between women is one of the most interesting narrative threads in the film, reinforced by a great supporting performance by Kathy Bates as Ruth’s legal idol Dorothy Kenyon.
Less compelling are the ra-ra-feminism moments that make Ruth out to be some kind of perky optimist. (My neck may never recover from the full-body cringe at the line “it could topple the whole damn system of discrimination.”) The script, written by Ginsberg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, is clunky, despite his illuminating insight into his aunt’s personal life. Jones does a good job of capturing Ginsberg’s poise and determination, but her best scenes are opposite Hammer, who brings a steady, supportive performance usually reserved for “the wife” in biopics about powerful men. His Marty feels true to the countless stories that have been shared about him since his death in 2010: a funny, highly intelligent man who worshipped his wife, and was willing to step aside so she could shine. And isn’t that fucking refreshing? (Bonus: he was an excellent cook.)
As for Theroux, he is a continual delight, injecting a healthy dose of zany eccentricity into a film that could otherwise feel too earnest. (He also greets Ruth with a rendition of their Jewish camp song, a moment that needs to be played at the Oscars (if it's not too late can we let Justin Theroux host, as Mel Wulf!)
Ultimately, the film succeeds in painting a frustrating picture of a world of men who cannot — or will not — understand what the women around them are complaining about. Even Mel, a liberal crusader, dismisses Ruth’s claims as frivolous at first. Women can’t be a minority group — they’re 50% of the population, yada yada yada. The idea that the casual sexism we’re still fighting today was once embedded into law — and that this woman took it upon herself to change that — is what hits home the most.
Unlike its protagonist, On The Basis of Sex won’t change the world. But judging by the sobs coming from many of the women around me in the cinema, it certainly hits the spot.
On The Basis of Sex is released in the UK on 22nd February.