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On the Basis of Sex

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On the Basis of Sex” is a fictionalized account of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s formative years as a lawyer and law professor. The film is informative, in a dutiful way, but it’s a skin-deep celebration of someone who’s never settled for superficiality in her life’s work. Hints of her future self appear, but only in flashes. Mostly the production takes its cues not from real life but from film clichés.

The fateful flaw isn’t hard to locate. It’s the script, which was written by Daniel Stiepleman. For one thing Stiepleman has no experience writing feature films; for another he’s Justice Gisnburg’s nephew. That constitutes double jeopardy for filmgoers who may wonder why the production is so predictable, in spite of the best efforts of Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as Martin Ginsburg, her loving, charming and endlessly supportive husband.

Apparently Marty Ginsburg was all of those things and more, a reputation that’s burnished by “RBG,” the fascinating documentary released earlier this year. Still, Hammer’s portrayal of the fictionalized Marty is monotone, or rather tri-tone; this guy is loving, charming, and supportive at every moment.

The only glimpses of the young Ruth Bader in the documentary came from still photos, and from home movies shot during her undergraduate days at Cornell—a strikingly beautiful young woman asserting her intelligence and sense of purpose in a man’s world, and, in the 1950s, aspiring to a place of prominence in a man’s profession.

That’s when “On the Basis of Sex” picks up the fictionalized Ruth—a Cornell grad about to enter Harvard Law School in 1956. We’re moved by the hope and resolve that radiate from Ruth’s face, and so what if Felicity Jones doesn’t quite nail her subject’s baroque New York accent.

The question of accents raises the larger question of why the role of a quintessentially American heroine was given to an English actress. But casting isn’t what vitiates the story’s power. Neither is accuracy. The film reminds us of the lowly status of women as recently as 1972, when Ruth, in conjunction with Marty, argues an ostensible tax case that becomes an early success in her almost half-century-long legal battle for gender equality.

The trouble with “On the Basis of Sex” is that it fails to make the case for its subject’s exceptionalism. We’re certainly told how determined she is, how devoted and intelligent, and you can find those qualities in Felicity Jones’s performance. What’s missing, though, because the writing and direction don’t dare to dramatize it, is the steely fury that must have been burning in Ruth’s soul all along. There’s no way to imagine this young woman growing into the flesh-and-blood thinker and fearless fighter who commands our attention, with renewed urgency, from the intersection of law, politics and mortality.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.

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Joe Morgenstern