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On the Basis of Sex

An overly polished and slavishly devoted biopic that contributes little to its subject's legacy that a recent documentary didn't already cover.

The lasting impact of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s illustrious career is beyond question, but the impact of the cult of RBG remains to be seen. With director Mimi Leder’s On The Basis of Sex, the slavish adoration of the diminutive jurist has received the big screen treatment it warrants, if not with the execution it deserves. While the story of Bader Ginsburg’s early career is a compelling narrative with an obviously engaging protagonist, Leder’s glossy cinematic treatment falls short of doing its subject justice.

This is not to say that On the Basis of Sex is a bad film, but it is a problematic one. It attributes agency to every one but Ginsburg at every opportunity, leaving her as a character that reacts rather than acts. We don’t really see the RBG we know and love until the last fifteen minutes of the film’s excessive two hours, and then we’re treated to a wholly unnecessary shot of the genuine article. Why? Because this is a film that trades on assumed adoration rather than building a case for itself.

Leder’s film focuses on a broad chronological swath in the early history of RBG, starting with her student days at Harvard Law School and culminating in her first argument before the Supreme Court on a landmark gender discrimination case in the early ‘70s. Everything proceeds predictably, the dramatic stakes diminished by the broad cultural awareness of the events in question. This early career focus makes room for some solid supporting performances from Justin Theroux as ACLU chief Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates as pioneering attorney Dorothy Kenyon. but as is the case with the film as a whole, it all feels too slight and superficial.

While Felicity Jones is perfectly acceptable in the title role, and Armie Hammer is reasonable enough as RBG’s doting husband Martin Ginsburg, the story in which they find themselves ensconced is so romanticized as to play more like fantasy than fact. This is every bit as much a superhero origin story as any comic book movie released in recent memory, and bears the problematic earmarks of such endeavors. On the Basis of Sex strains credulity even as it recounts historical fact, a rare feat that I doubt was an intentional aspiration on the part of the filmmakers.

So what we have here is a rote, by-the-numbers biopic that contributes nothing novel to the story of its subject. Yes, that subject is duly inspiring and worthy of a film, and maybe if you’re coming in with little to no prior knowledge it might prove valuable. But if that’s the case, you’d probably be better served by revisiting Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s recent doc RBG. Neither great nor terrible, On the Basis of Sex takes a route typically reserved for music biopics by serving up a slick rendering of a complex life, streamlined to hit a feature length running time and polished beyond all but the most general recognition. So is On the Basis of Sex worth seeing? That’s a judgement call you’ll have to make on the basis of your attachment to its subject. 

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