On the Basis of Sex is a new film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who was also recently chronicled in the documentary RBG). It tells the story of Ginsburg’s early days as a lawyer, focusing on one of her earliest cases involving gender discrimination. It debuted at the 2018 AFI Fest to mixed reviews, but is hoping to gain steam in the awards season.
This film has the benefit of its subject being a hot commodity right now. Ginsburg is an admired figure in politics and a pop culture sensation. She has also been in the news because of her recent injury. The fact that many people are familiar with her will undoubtedly help them sympathize with the character and her story more easily.
That being said, even if you are unfamiliar with the protagonist going in, the film does a good job of making her story compelling. Writer Daniel Stiepleman made the smart move of focusing on the more inspirational aspects of the story and the struggles that Ginsberg had to suffer through, allowing the audience to more easily admire and connect with her.
However, the film also has quite a few shortcomings. One of the biggest flaws with the film is that the dialogue is consistently over-the-top. It does do a good job of pushing the film’s message, but its overly straightforward nature results in it feeling largely artificial. For example, there is a scene in which a character says, “Let’s go around the table and report who you are and why you’re occupying a place that could’ve gone to a man.” On one hand, this very clearly shows the unfair discrimination which Ginsberg had to endure, but on the other hand, it’s so direct that it feels cheesy.
The other big problem with the film is that it just isn’t as interesting as it should be. The documentary RBG proved that Ginsberg is a fascinating figure. This isn’t a typical biopic, though, instead opting to focus on one of Ginsberg’s earlier cases that formed her career. It is understandable why the case on which the film is focused — a landmark tax case — was chose, but tax court just isn’t that interesting. The film attempts to throw in the flashiness of a grand legal drama, but it isn’t convincing.
On a technical level, the film is a mixed bag. There are some moments that are absolutely amazing and some moments that are rather bland. The best shot in the film may be the opening in which we see Ginsberg marching through a crowd of men. This easily could have felt artificial and cheesy, but the way in which it is shot allows it to be inspiring and uplifting. Much of the rest of the film feels unremarkable. The digital cinematography makes it feel too modern, and the production design doesn’t do a good enough job of periodization. As such, it isn’t immersive at all.
The performances are all very good, though. Felicity Jones does a great job as Ginsburg. It’s a shame that the film itself is so mediocre, as her performance may have otherwise earned her accolades. She transforms into the character and does a great job of capturing her personality. The standout in the supporting cast is Justin Theroux, who is funny and charming as one of Ginsburg’s (eventual) legal allies. Armie Hammer also gives a strong turn as her husband.
Overall, On the Basis of Sex was largely disappointing. Fans of the “Notorious RBG” will likely enjoy seeing her story on the big screen, but it does not do justice to the Justice.
On the Basis of Sex is now playing in select theaters and expands January 4.