No cliché is left unturned in this paint by numbers biopic that means well but ultimately loses its case
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, fell and cracked three ribs this week and was in and out of the hospital and back at work after just one day. I only wish the new film “inspired” by her life, On the Basis of Sex, which world premiered at AFI FEST, had half of as much strength and tenacity as the real thing.
When a biopic opens with the disclaimer that it’s ‘inspired by’ rather than something a bit more definitive you know you’re in for a very different version of the truth. For On the Basis of Sex, which shrinks in the shadow of the successful documentary RBG from last spring, missing details and character motivations become crucial missteps in a film that is still probably guaranteed to be an inspirational crowdpleaser.
We start in 1956 with Ruth Ginsburg one of only nine women in her Harvard Law freshman class set the “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” The dean, Erwin Griswold (played with mustache-twirling villainry by Sam Waterston) constantly hammers home what makes a ‘Harvard man,’ and in a perfunctory welcome dinner for the female students belittles their reasons for choosing law, asking “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that would have gone to a man?” These moments are probably meant to highlight for a younger audience how bad it was for women but also find a way to speak to how little has changed in terms of how women are viewed in predominantly male professions (although women make up the larger percentage of graduates from law school now). There is a poignancy there that’s mostly earned.
The film hits all of the beats necessary to push its story through, Ginsburg hitting an obstacle, overcoming it. She graduates at the top of her class at Harvard and Columbia yet can’t get a job at any law firm in New York City; no one will hire her or they “already have a woman, why would they need another?” These life landmarks are punctuated by her husband Martin (a very good Armie Hammer in the classic supporting spouse role) being diagnosed with cancer, which he would battle all of his life until his death in 2010. Martin, one of the best tax lawyers in the city, happens upon a case of discrimination where a never-married male caregiver to his mother (a very good Chris Mulkey) is denied a caregiver tax credit by the IRS. It’s the case that she knows could break through for sex-based discrimination for decades to come. This results in a montage of the final brief being furiously typed up, close ups of ON. THE. BASIS. OF. SEX. Just in case you didn’t know.
Felicity Jones is so woefully miscast here that I began to imagine Natalie Portman, who was originally going to play Ginsburg for director Marielle Heller, in the role. There is nary a moment of authenticity from Jones’ performance, whether it’s her wildly wavering accent and cadence or trying to find the true fierce advocate she’s supposed to be playing. I also kept thinking of Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I wonder if Jones and Leder wanted to tone down the ‘Jewishness’ of Ginsburg’s Brooklynese so as not to appear cartoony. Whatever the reason, Jones is just not up to the task nor is she able to rise above the material.
Much better are Hammer in one of his most accomplished performances, Justin Theroux as ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf and Cailee Spaeny as Ruth’s daughter. Spaeny offers a spitfire performance even when she has to deliver underlined, bolded and italicized takedowns of her mother’s approach like “It’s not a movement if everyone’s sitting down, it’s a support group.” It’s a potentially star-making performance and I expect we’ll see a lot more of her in the future.
Academy Award winner Kathy Bates takes a break from the American Horror Story franchise to pop in with a great little cameo as civil rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon. She lends the film some of its sharpest observations and more than a bit of levity in her very brief scenes but this is a role she can do in her sleep.
Daniel Stiepleman, nephew to RBG, pens a screenplay that is so on the nose you almost expect characters to break the fourth wall and lecture directly to the audience and unfortunately director Mimi Leder is more than eager to jump aboard this entry level biopic. You know when a line like ‘the weather of the day doesn’t dictate the climate of the era’ that not only will that line come back at juuust the right time but will be uttered during a particularly rainy day for emphasis. Green Book suffers from this as well. That film was written by the protagonist’s son so maybe that, and this, is just too close to the source material.
Leder has been a great director in the past. Her feature film debut, The Peacemaker with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, was the first film to kick off Dreamworks back in 1997. She took on Michael Bay the very next year in the battle of the asteroid movies with Deep Impact (his won the box office but hers was significantly better). She has an extraordinary television pedigree having directed episodes of The West Wing, China Beach, The Leftovers and winning two Emmys for ER. She directs projects with strong female protagonists exceptionally well but I found so little of her in this, her first feature in nine years. It felt directed by committee.
When we finally get to the case that cemented her status as a force to be reckoned with, it plays out like a chapter of Rocky. There’s the government’s lawyer laying out a solid case, chumming it up with the judges while Ginsburg awkwardly pauses, stutters and bangs the microphone and sending feedback through the courtroom. She acquiesces the final rebuttal to Martin but wait, she finds the strength in the final moments and the camera cuts to her clutching Martin’s arm, the music swells (I could go on about how bad this score is) and well, you know what will happen next.
It may be that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, being a very real-life superhero of a person, is too larger than life to fully explore in a two-hour movie. She certainly is here and the film basically gives way to that in its final shot, which features the living legend herself. It’s a choice that seems to both want to acknowledge the woman as well as resign itself to its own failure. Ginsburg may be of diminutive stature but she has big shoes to fill.
On the Basis of Sex premiered at AFI FEST on November 8th and will be released nationwide by Focus Features on Christmas Day.