“On the Basis of Sex” Distributed by Focus Features, 120 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 25, 2018:
Part of the enjoyment of the new movie “On the Basis of Sex” comes from seeing otherwise intelligent and respectable people interacting during a fairly recent past with social customs unthinkable during modern times--casually and seemingly naturally mouthing sexist platitudes and practicing gender discrimination which would render them pariahs in the PC-correct, post-#MeToo New Millennium.
Bringing these laughably antiquated and inappropriate customs into sharper focus are the interactions of the Ginsburg family. Shown at home practicing such contemporary courtesies as openness, sharing, and mutual support and encouragement as early as 1958, when the story begins, makes the Ginsburgs seem markedly out of place during the Eisenhower era, as conspicuously futuristic as the cartoon Jetsons.
Knowing the Ginsburgs are going to be instrumental in changing America’s tradition of gender inequality brings a smile of anticipation to the expressions of audiences. Indeed, when we see the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg patiently enduring the slights and insults of the good ol’ boys network which formulated laws and balanced society during that era, viewers very much experience a sense of, “Hey, try that in twenty-five years, buddy.”
In that way, “On the Basis of Sex” sometimes becomes something like an intellectual “Rocky,” a movie in which the heroes throw words instead of punches, compete in ideas instead of rounds, and work out with books instead of barbells. In its overall feel-good ambiance, it seems no accident that the unmistakable fingerprints of the legendary populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg appear discreetly among the picture’s closing credits.
Written by Bader Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex” details the Harvard Law School education and early legal career of current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The picture examines specifically the young jurist’s involvement with the Moritz v. Commissioner lawsuit. Moritz v. Commissioner was a landmark 1972 case which challenged a decision of the US Tax Court that a Denver man, Charles Moritz, was ineligible for tax deductions for the expenses he accumulated in the care of his invalid mother, essentially because he was not a woman.
Although the case involved tax law and Bader Ginsburg’s specialty was gender discrimination, the young lawyer accepted the challenge at the urging of her husband because she believed an appellate court composed entirely of male judges would be more sympathetic to a gender discrimination case in which the victim was a man. The case successfully proved “invidious discrimination” against Moritz, and marked the beginning of Bader Ginsburg’s mission to challenge every law that demonstrated inequality on the basis of gender.
“On the Basis of Sex” is anchored by a carefully-shaded characterization by actress Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in England, educated at Oxford, and probably best known to date for her performance as Jane Hawking, the wife of physicist Stephen Hawking, in 2014’s Academy Award-nominated biographical film “The Theory of Everything,” Jones also performed the leading role of Jyn Erso in the 2016 “Star Wars Anthology” picture “Rogue One.”
The actress’s superb and spot-on inhabitation of the current Supreme Court Justice as a young woman balancing her responsibilities as a wife and mother with a tireless devotion to law and equality is inspiring, but also helps to humanize and demystify the legendary jurist. In a way, Jones’ emphatic but warm-hearted performance makes the viewer able to better appreciate just how affectionate are comic Kate McKinnon’s occasional parodies of Bader Ginsburg on television’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Actor Armie Hammer has managed to rebound from not one but two roles in expensive, high-profile megabombs which for a lesser talent might well have been career-ending fiascoes: Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” in 2013, a $250 million disappointment which was effectively DOA at the box office, and 2015’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a reboot of the beloved 1960s television classic which teamed Hammer as Soviet sidekick Illya Kuryakin with Henry Cavill’s wooden superspy Napoleon Solo, and managed to sabotage little more than the picture’s $100.8 million budget.
Hammer resuscitated his career mostly by seeking supporting roles in small-budget, edgy, low-key independent films such as Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” in 2016, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017, and Boots Riley’s frenetic and controversial “Sorry to Bother You” from 2018.
In “On the Basis of Sex,” Hammer might actually have the showier of the picture’s two main roles. With his gently bemused countenance as tax law expert Martin Ginsburg, Hammer’s handed a “Camille”-like near-death scene during the movie’s first half in the late 1950s, but survives in time to become an equal partner in his wife’s crusade for equality in the 1960s...and also to remind their rebellious teenage daughter during the turbulent 1970s that when your mom is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even Gloria Steinem takes a back seat.
In fact, the only false note in this genuinely compelling film is during the very end, when RBG herself makes a brief cameo appearance, presumably to deliver an implicit stamp of approval on the picture and in the meantime give the audience an opportunity to gawk at the remarkable resemblance achieved by Jones and the cosmetics department. The appearance of the associate Supreme Court Justice herself is clearly meant to be an inspiring moment, a casual stroll into celluloid immortality. But even by Hollywood Ending standards, the moment is more than a little...well, cheesy.
Written and directed with obvious affection by both Stiepleman and Leder, “On the Basis of Sex” isn’t as stylish as the similarly-themed “Marshall” from 2017, which effectively turned the young Thurgood Marshall into a smooth and smokin’ young Civil Rights lawyer played by “Black Panther” superstar Chadwick Boseman. But the two pictures are decidedly in the same ballpark. Biographical pictures as entertaining as these make history fun.
Also featuring performances by an effective Justin Theroux as a sympathetic ACLU attorney and former classmate of Bader Ginsburg, Cailee Spaeny as the Ginsburgs’ strong-minded teenage daughter, and Kathy Bates in a small, showcase role as civil liberties pioneer Dorothy Kenyon, “On the Basis of Sex” is performing fairly well with both the nation’s critics and moviegoing audiences:
Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 71% for “On the Basis of Sex,” against an average score of 60% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore awarded the picture a grade of A. The picture opened on Christmas Day in a limited release to only 33 theaters nationwide, but expanded its release into 1957 theaters on January 11, earning $6.2 million during that weekend and finishing sixth in Box Office Mojo’s Top Ten.
“On the Basis of Sex” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language concerns, and some suggestive content. Check it out if you get a chance.