On the Basis of Sex

Directed by Mimi Leder best known for 1998’s Deep Impact and 2000’s Pay It Forward, On the Basis of Sex is an intriguing look at the formative years of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that, although well-acted and with the best of intentions, fell short of capturing the truly extraordinary life of Justice Ginsburg. We first meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, as a first-year student at Harvard Law School in the 1950s when she is only among a handful of female students enrolled at the prestigious institution. Throughout the first half of the movie, she struggles with finding her place in the legal world primarily due to her gender and despite her being the top of her class at Harvard and Columbia. She even sacrifices some of her own academic work in order to help her cancer-stricken husband Martin, played by Golden Globe nominee Armie Hammer, to keep up with his work also at Harvard Law School. Eventually, they move to New York City where Martin works for a highly regarded law firm, and the only job that she can find is working as a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Up until this point, it is a rather paint-by-numbers biopic exploring the protagonist’s challenges that inspire the person’s later life and eventual great success. The remainder of the movie revolves around her most important case about gender discrimination, especially for women, that is brought to her attention by her loving husband Martin who is now cancer-free. At first, it seems like a rather straightforward and dry tax case until Ginsberg realizes it could provide precedent overturning the national and state laws that she argues discriminates against women and are therefore unconstitutional. The famous case involves an unmarried man named Charles Moritz living in Denver who is denied tax benefits for a caregiver for his sick older mother and must take care of her himself to his financial detriment. With the help of the ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf, played by Justin Theroux, and feminist civil rights advocate Dorothy Kenyon, played by Oscar winner Kathy Bates, the up-and-coming Ginsberg spends most of her waking hours in pursuit of appealing the tax decision and ultimately bring it up in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to further her crusade for gender equality. In yet another biopic cliché, she must face her prior foes in the form of the formidable defense team aided by the former Harvard Law School dean, played by Oscar nominee Sam Waterston, and her former professor, played by Stephen Root, both men who made her life difficult in law school at a time when women were frowned upon becoming lawyers. The film also presents a more personal side of now Justice Ginsburg by showing her tender and supportive relationship with her husband and having to raise young children at the beginning of her hard-fought career. Overall, I found it to be a good start for exploring the remarkable accomplishments of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but ultimately it is bogged down by genre conventions and stereotypes. That is not to say that it is not a movie worth seeing because it is full of good acting performances and centers around a fascinating law case, but I would say that the recent 2018 documentary RBG is a much more important study of the venerable Justice Ginsburg.

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