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.