If you squint, “On the Basis of Sex” looks like a decent movie. There’s nothing immediately wrong with it. With Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Armie Hammer as the late Marty Ginsburg, and a screenwriter (Daniel Stiepleman) who is so closely connected to the family as Ginsburg’s real-life nephew that he’s bound to be able to summon a sense of authenticity, you’d think Director Mimi Leder’s Christmas release would have been a hit, or at least resonated with the fans who came out to see the 2018 documentary “RBG” in droves.
‘RBG’ vs. ‘On the Basis of Sex’
You’d be wrong. I loved “RBG” despite some of the noxious liberal bias and obsession with celebrating Supreme Court justices as pop culture icons (a trend contrary to the entire point of the High Court). I expected to enjoy “On the Basis of Sex” just as much, given that I maintain a certain respect for Ginsburg’s careful, measured legal strategy.
But Ginsburg’s character had no complexity to speak of, the dialogue felt stilted (with the exception of a few jokes and sweet comments by Marty), and the “activist daughter” (which isn’t even historically accurate) felt overplayed, like they warped Jane’s entire personality into a young devotee worshiping at the altar of Gloria Steinem to pander to liberal audiences.
In fact, it was hard not to groan when Jane got in trouble for skipping school to go to a Gloria Steinem rally. What an unnecessary, overplayed thread in a story that already felt rushed, like it had a hard time finding and maintaining focus!
There were a few anachronisms to speak of, or components that felt cheap and not altogether accurate––were students really saying “get laid” and “bullsh-t” in front of their professors in the ’60s? Was Ginsburg super cool with that? And why was she wearing a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress (released in 1974, at the earliest) in a scene that was supposed to take place several years prior?
Of course catcalling existed in the ’60s and ’70s, but did we really need the over-the-top scene with Jane telling her mother that she can’t let men push her around? The “young feminist teaches older feminist, older feminist feels proud of new generation” schtick felt forced. Ginsburg’s legal career fighting for equal rights speaks for itself, albeit more subtly. It seems the filmmakers just weren’t content letting that subtlety shine.
It’s the little things that make a movie or television show sing. The attention to detail of the “Mad Men” show runners is part of what made the series so excellent. They had ’60s-era Dixie cups made specially for the show, analyzed fruit sizes over the decades, and checked the weather of specific days in the ’60s to make sure characters were dressed accurately, though even they succumbed to a few anachronisms.
It feels like the “On the Basis” folks made a small attempt at that, but never really went all the way. I did appreciate the “Aida” poster in the Ginsburg apartment––a clear nod to Justice Ginsburg’s love of opera––but found myself continuously bothered by Jones’ terrible, inconsistent accent.
Poor Pacing, Shallow Development Did The Movie In
But the biggest problem was undoubtedly the pacing, and the lack of grace with which they developed (or rather, failed to develop) Ginsburg’s character. Like so many movies, this one’s downfall was that the filmmakers tried to do too much in too short a time. Starting with Ginsburg’s first day at Harvard, the movie sped into the dinner with Harvard Dean Erwin Griswold, where he asked the somewhat sexist question of why the female law students deserved to take a man’s spot, jerking watchers straight into some of the adversity Ginsburg faced in her early days.
Then the film jumped into Marty’s cancer diagnosis, Ginsburg’s work ethic attending both sets of classes and helping him write his papers (all true!), then to Ginsburg’s struggle to find employment, her teaching at Rutgers, and the Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case. They entirely forgot about her time in Sweden, which was maybe for the better given that the movie already had too many components.
They tried to weave in her close relationship with Marty (including a fairly tame sex scene that felt like a waste of everyone’s time), tensions with her daughter, her general coldness as a mother (I’m not sure her son was even mentioned by name in the entire movie), issues with sexism, and her thinly veiled disappointment at settling for a job teaching at Rutgers despite incredible competence as a legal mind that really should have earned her any number of the jobs she sought. This was all in the first hour of the movie before they even reached the meat of the Moritz case and the beginning of her career arguing cases.
Again, these criticisms aren’t levied because Ginsburg has become the jurist darling of the left (and an ardent, if inappropriate, critic of President Trump). The movie is just plain bad on its own, regardless of her political leanings. The movie stayed in shallow territory, relying on an overly dramatic film score to tell you how to feel. It almost makes you wonder whether having the nephew of the subject write the film sometimes creates fawning results (who could have guessed?).
After all, Rotten Tomatoes scores transcend partisanship, and the “Tomatometer” scores are aggregates of how critics across the web react to a given film. Indeed, they tell the truth here. “RBG” received a 95 percent “Tomatometer” score, while “On the Basis of Sex” came in at a paltry 71 percent. The latter deserved to come in even lower. It was clear in the first 30 minutes that the filmmakers were phoning it in, expecting their creation to be fawned over by sheer association with Ginsburg instead of on merit.
As writer Jill Lepore put it, referring to broader cultural obsession with Ginsburg, at The New Yorker:
But trivialization—R.B.G.’s workout tips! her favorite lace collars!—is not tribute. Female heroes are in short supply not because women aren’t brave but because female bravery is demeaned, no kind more than intellectual courage. Isn’t she cute? Ginsburg was and remains a scholar, an advocate, and a judge of formidable sophistication, complexity, and, not least, contradiction and limitation. It is no kindness to flatten her into a paper doll and sell her as partisan merch.
Although “On the Basis” likely didn’t mean to trivialize or flatten Ginsburg, the movie’s major flaws created that unfortunate result. Ginsburg fans would be better served watching “RBG” (if they can stomach the strange pop culturization of the jurist) or, better yet, reading her writing. She deserves a better tribute than this, and we deserve at least the semblance of an interesting movie.