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Film Reviews Review: On the Basis of Sex is objectionable, even for the most ardent Ruth Bader Ginsburg devotee

Justin Theroux as Melvin Wulf and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.

Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features/Focus Features

  • On the Basis of Sex
  • Classification: PG; 120 minutes
  • Directed by Mimi Leder
  • Written by Daniel Stiepleman
  • Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Kathy Bates

rating

Who would have predicted that 2018 would be the year of Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

This isn’t a complaint, just an expression of delightful surprise that the past 12 months have witnessed not one but two big-screen projects chronicling the life of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice. But where Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG was effective in probing what drives Bader Ginsburg’s remarkable strength – and was especially heartening to revisit while Brett Kavanaugh’s temper tantrums dominated the airwaves – director Mimi Leder’s new biopic On the Basis of Sex falls regrettably flat.

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Focusing on Bader Ginsburg’s landmark 1972 case Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which helped overturn America’s history of sex-based discrimination, the film is as bland as Bader Ginsburg is extraordinary. Narrative beats are telegraphed early, Leder’s visuals are uninspired and the hagiographic tone becomes a bit much even for the most ardent progressive.

As RBG, Felicity Jones tries to imbue her heroine with as many layers as she can wring out of the watery script.

Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features/Focus Features

As RBG, Felicity Jones tries to imbue her heroine with as many layers as she can wring out of the watery script, and Armie Hammer plays her devoted, perfect husband Martin Ginsburg with easy charm (making this Hammer’s second, or maybe third, Harvard man after his Social Network twins). The rest of the cast, though, seem just as disappointed with their dialogue as audiences will be, with Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates and Stephen Root barely making an effort.

The film’s middling but good intentions might be enough for the work to skate by unnoticed – but then Leder constructs an unforgivably sentimental finale that builds to a cameo from Bader Ginsburg herself. At that point, we must object.

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