In my previous review for Green Book I spoke about movie tropes that annoyed me, one of them being “the brave lawyer changing the outcome of a court case with impassioned but inherently stupid emotional monologues that no reasonable judge would allow”. Within the first five minutes of On the Basis of Sex, I was sure that later on there would be a moment where exactly that happened. The opening scenes were so stupidly bad I was already preparing for giving the film half or one star. Notably, the opening sequence of Ginsburg walking to her first day at Harvard as the only woman in a sea of suited men is almost identical to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde, walking up the stairs of Congress in pink. As the film progressed however, while it perhaps didn’t live up to the potential of its phenomenal source material, it certainly wasn’t the train wreck I was anticipating.
On the Basis of Sex tells the true story of of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from her initial admission to Harvard up to the historic win of Moritz v Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1975. Felicity Jones as Ginsburg is what stops the first half hour of this film from becoming painfully simplistic and unbearable. The portrayal of Ginsburg’s time at Harvard and the difficulty she faced in finding a job as a lawyer is handled well enough, but where the film struggles is in depicting her relationship with her husband and daughter. The dialogue in these scenes is cringeworthy to the point of being laughable, and feels like sitcom-esque filler for the rest of the film. I’m sure that Ginsburg’s relationship with her family was an important part of her life, but as a viewer, I just didn’t care. The film spends a good chunk of time outlining the frosty relationship between Ginsburg and her daughter, but without any real depth. Marty Ginsburg’s testicular cancer is likewise handled so bizarrely that I thought I must have missed something or dozed off; the film literally has ten minutes of him being sick and then skips three years and he’s recovered and it’s never mentioned again.
Where the film redeems itself is when Ginsburg takes on the Moritz case as a means of setting the precedent for reversing US laws that allow for discrimination based on gender. The dialogue between Ginsburg and Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) is quick and witty, and the final rebuttal provided by Ginsburg in court feels like something that would actually win a court case. In this sense the film is handled beautifully, Ginsburg didn’t win the case because she was a woman, she won because she was the better lawyer. If the film had focussed more on what actually made Ginsburg remarkable and the trailblazer that she undeniably was rather than wasting time on the superfluous family stuff, it would have moved closer to something extraordinary. Although, as the film closes on the real life Ruth Bader Ginsburg walking up the steps to the Supreme Court building in Washington, I got genuine and awe inspired chills.
By Jock Lehman.
4 thoughts on “On the Basis of Sex”
Jock. I thought I’d have far more screaming and shouting to do in response to a review that gives one of my 2019 faves-so-far only 2 stars, but there’s really just one bone I’d like to pick:
You describe the family dynamics explored in the film as being ‘superfluous’. Thoroughly disagree. I’d describe them as ‘important’ and ‘illuminating’ and ‘beautiful’, even. Ruth’s personal relationships remind us that history’s famed trailblazers, pioneers and radicals are framed by amazing (and often hidden) support networks, but also immense personal burdens that we don’t often care to peer beyond their public profiles to consider.
I can agree that Marty’s struggle with testicular cancer is lazily glossed over, and perhaps better excluded, but the support role he plays is admirable and worth showcasing (I’d even throw around the hashtag #couplegoals, particularly given we’re dealing with the 1950s-1970s, making Marty Ginsburg a bit of a unicorn-husband). Would Ruth have achieved as much as she did in her early career with a spouse who, like most of her opponents in the film, sought to uphold traditional gender roles? Admittedly, most of what I know about Marty’s devotion to Ruth’s career comes from watching the RBG documentary (2018) and not the film itself. He had a huge part to play in lobbying for her nomination to the Supreme Court and I think the foundations for this kind of cheerleading are apparent in the early stages of their marriage and have a rightful place in this movie. Ruth herself, in her admission speech, described her hubby as her ‘biggest booster’. Armie Hammer is also something of a delight to watch, so the more screen time the better, I say.
As for the protagonist’s strained relationship with her daughter, it’s actually one of the few scenes shared by Ruth and Jane that I found the most enlightening of the whole film. We watch the mother-daughter pair hail a cab on a rainy street and to the sexual remarks of an on-looking group of male construction workers, Jane yells, ‘Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?’. Surprised by and in admiration of her daughter’s confidence and audacity, I think an important revelation is sparked here for Ruth. The film, up until this point, shows us that Ruth has isolated her daughter by constantly challenging and critiquing her, attempting perhaps to force her intellectual views onto Jane. In this scene, however, Ruth realises that she needn’t actively impart her passion for equality onto her daughter. The fire in Jane is inherent. And Jane is harnessing its flame to weld a brand of feminism (the outspoken-bra-burning-sexual-liberalisation kind, we can assume) that is bolder and potentially more effective and powerful than her mother’s generation’s. I think this glimpse into Jane’s coming-of-age signals to Ruth that the incoming generation of women is unprepared to tolerate the same objectification as their mothers – Jane is cultivating her very own style of activism, with or without her mother’s help. And that realisation provides an important dose of humility and self-awareness for a protagonist who viewers assume to be the all-knowing, model feminist ‘hero’.
To dismiss (by omission) the role that Ruth played as a wife and mother is to ignore the enormous private/personal/domestic responsibility that could very well have derailed her academic and professional success, but didn’t (cause she’s a bloody boss). I was in awe watching the scenes that depict Ruth completing her own law degree AND attending her husband’s classes on his behalf AND caring for her infant child AND caring for her sick husband.
Whether the film depicted Ruth’s personal relationships with sufficient depth is up for debate, as you’ve already suggested. But I certainly don’t think her family life was an unnecessary inclusion…
(In fact I would have liked to have known more about Ruth’s relationship with her deceased mother. Am I asking too much?)
Hi Steph Symons!
Thanks so much for your comment, glad to see you enjoyed the movie!
I think the issue I had with all the aspects of Ruth’s personal life was the fact that they were dealt with so poorly. The dialogue for me in the scenes with her daughter and her husband was so poorly developed and seemed like filler. If they had developed that aspect of the film more then yes it could have been a valuable part of the movie, but as it stands, I think it really missed the mark.
I do agree with you though that Ruth’s relationship with her mother would have been an interesting aspect to have been explored. But for me, the depiction of her relationship with her daughter was so cliched and shallow that it did the film a disservice.
Like I said though, I really enjoyed the later parts of the film. The court case was done beautifully and I left feeling inspired.
What films have you enjoyed so far this year?
I think I might need to watch the movie again. Like you, I left with such an empowered buzz – a buzz that lasted for several days – so perhaps I’m viewing it all with rose-coloured glasses. Also, I think it’s easy when you know more information than a film reveals to you (especially with biopics or historical fiction) to extrapolate rather than take on face value what the film is actually showing you and how well it is doing so.
Looking forward to reading more reviews. Are you a Marvel fan?
Sure am now Steph! Have a squiz at my latest review of Avengers: Endgame and let me know what you think!