On the Basis of Sex Review

For a movie that meant to pay tribute to the life of one of the most prominent figures in modern American politics, On the Basis of Sex came off as a confused, if not well-meaning, film that seemed unsure as to how to portray the remarkable true story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Starring Felicity Jones as justice Ginsburg, On The Basis of Sex, is a film riddled with indecision and inconsistencies. Beginning with Ginsburg’s admission to Harvard Law and ending with her winning her first court case, the movie follows Ginsburg on the road to her becoming a lawyer, but, surprisingly, not on the road to her becoming a supreme court justice. Though I’ll admit that as I entered the theatre I wasn’t exactly sure how much of her life the movie would cover, I was shocked to walk out of the movie never having seen Ginsburg go anywhere DC.

While it’s very necessary for a movie to establish where it’s character began, On the Basis of Sex simultaneously spends too much and little time on Ginsburg’s past to explain how she got where she is today. The first 20 minutes of the movie felt rushed and unnecessary, as after the scenes were immediately over, the movie would undermine itself by skipping ahead of the action it had set up in the previous scene. These odd and frequent time skips were an aspect of the movie that I found very frustrating, especially because when the film finally began to delve into the plot, the central narrative wasn’t even about how Ginsburg became a supreme court justice.

As opposed to detailing her ascension of ranks in Washington DC, On the Basis of Sex focuses on Ginsburg winning her first case as a lawyer, in conjunction with her husband. The character of Martin Ginsburg (played by Armie Hammer), represents a lot of what I thought was most wrong with the film. Martin, while excellently portrayed,  seemed so charismatic and capable that he often times ended up undermining his wife whenever he was onscreen. Although this dynamic is addressed in the movie, I still couldn’t help but feel like the movie hadn’t done enough to establish Ginsburg as the sharp-witted and passionate woman we know her as today. Instead of showing her growth as a person and a lawyer, the movie spends an odd amount of time having supporting characters like Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny) and Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) tell Ruth what a terrible person she is.

Though I do believe that it’s incredibly important to establish both the strengths and weaknesses of your characters (especially in a biopic), On the Basis of Sex spends all of its showing Ginsburg’s struggles, and very little of it showing her successes. This phenomenon occurs both in her home life, where she struggles to be a present and caring mother to her two children) and in the workplace, where she does little more than getting told off by superiors and writing a case brief.

In terms of the acting, the majority of the cast was fairly solid. Felicity Jones certainly fits the role of Ginsburg physically but seemed to struggle with keeping up Ginsburg’s Brooklyn accent. Apart from the inconsistent accent, Jones gave a strong but not incredibly moving performance, which wasn’t helped by a weak script. Aside from the aforementioned Armie Hammer, none of the other cast members stood out enough to warrant much comment.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed and disappointed by On the Basis of Sex. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had an incredibly successful and groundbreaking career, and the movie did her very little justice. From odd pacing to a weak script and even some noticeably shoddy CGI, On The Basis of Sex just didn’t seem to hit any of the right notes. While certainly not a bad movie, it wasn’t a great one either, and Justice Ginsburg deserves nothing less than an excellent portrayal of her extraordinary life.