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On the Basis of Sex Review: A Perfectly Fine Movie About an Incredible Woman

3/5 fancy collars

On the Basis of Sex felicity jones ruth bader ginsburg

In recent years, we’ve seen some fantastic and unique biopics–films that manage to do justice to the complexities of their subjects in translating their stories to screen, that work both as tributes to those subjects and engaging filmgoing experiences. But for every Jackie or Hidden Figures, there are a dozen other Oscar-season biopics that are little more than well-cast, well-funded readings from the Wikipedia pages of impressive people. Unfortunately, On the Basis of Sex, the new biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the latter. The movie is sweet and engaging, but it fails to capture a substantial fraction of the impressiveness of the real RBG.

The movie focuses on a relatively small window of Ginsburg’s life, beginning with her time as one of only a handful of women at Harvard Law School. As Ruth (Felicity Jones) maneuvers through her first year at school, she repeatedly finds herself facing off against men who view her as less than her male counterparts. From the dean who asks her why she feels justified in taking a seat away from a man to the teacher who pointedly refuses to call on her, Ruth undergoes the Sisyphean task of proving herself to one doubting man after another.

Pervasive sexism is, of course, the major theme, if not the entire point of the movie, but the depth of this oppression could have benefitted from a lighter hand. At times, it feels like the film might be underestimating its audience with just how hard it works to make sure we understand the all-caps message of SEXISM IS BAD.

While the script may be perfunctory, following Ruth through law school, a fruitless job search, and a decade of teaching, the performances are great. Felicity Jones is appropriately steadfast in her pursuit of opportunities and equality. The supporting cast includes Kathy Bates, Stephen Root, Justin Theroux, and Sam Waterston, and they’re all solid. Armie Hammer plays Ruth’s husband, Martin Ginsburg, and their relationship is wonderfully loving and supporting. It’s so refreshing to see a romantic relationship between a brilliant, ambitious woman and her equally matched male partner and not see even a trace of jealousy between them. The entire world was telling Ruth that she should stay at home and serve her husband; if Martin ever demonstrated that view, even for a second, it would have been unforgivable.

In fact, Armie Hammer does a great job with the film version of Martin, but if you’ve seen the Netflix documentary RBG, you know that the real-life Martin was somehow even more supportive than the version here. He was in awe of his wife, and, as described in the documentary, pretty much the reason she ended up on the Supreme Court. (She wasn’t great at talking herself up, something he had no problem doing for her.)

Ultimately, that’s the problem this movie can’t overcome: there’s nothing they put forward that a straight documentary about this incredible woman doesn’t do better a better job of depicting. On the Basis of Sex shows us Ruth from law school through her very first argument of a gender discrimination case in an appellate court, ending long before she became a Supreme Court Justice. These are interesting years, of course, but it’s hard not to wish the last near-half-century weren’t reduced to a post-script.

The film may not go as deep as it could have, but it’s still a decently told story of the early career of an incredible woman. If you’re looking for a movie to watch with your family over the holidays, this is definitely a solid choice. I only recommend that if possible, you make it a double feature alongside the RBG documentary, to get the full picture of this incredible icon.

(image: Focus Features)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.