Ruth Bader Ginsburg is absolutely a person who deserves a biopic made about her. I only wish that a slightly better one had been made. On the Basis of Sex isn’t bad, but it is so predictable. You know the beats the movie is going to hit pretty much as soon as it starts, not as a product of being familiar with history but because On the Basis of Sex’s beats are the same as any inspirational biopic. The initial hurdles, the successes and setbacks that all build up to a triumph where she realizes her ambitions; it has all been done before. Still, On the Basis of Sex is a fine movie about an important and heroic figure that never surprises or surpasses expectations.
On the Basis of Sex follows the future Supreme Court Justice from when she entered Harvard Law School to the early stages of her fight legal equality between women and men. The movie details her struggles in law school, with the inherent sexism of Harvard and its faculty and her husbands bought with cancer. It then follows her difficulty in finding employment as an attorney before settling in as a law professor and then finding the right case to pursue sex discrimination in the courts.
Everything is drawn somewhat broadly, as biopics often do. One encounter is there to stand in for a pattern of behavior, so that one encounter must hit all the points. Or the pattern is pointed out in dialogue. Sometimes these moments are worked smoothly into the course of the film, sometimes they fit in awkwardly. Some of the law school moments establish an effective pattern, Ginsburg explaining all of her bad interviews to an interviewer in what turns out to be another bad interview is a bit much.
Still, the movie hits the highlights of the story quite well. It tells its story just fine. The best part is its portrayal of the Ginsburg’s marriage. They are a fine partnership. A lot of that has to do with the performances of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Jones infuses Ginsburg with this quiet fierceness, letting you see her sharp intellect and occasionally sharp tongue while still seeing how her struggles get to her. Then there is Hammer as her eternally supportive husband. A lot of his support comes merely from his recognizing her talents in a way others in their profession refuse to. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent players do the best with their small parts. The movie has a scene or two for Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux and Stephen Root. They all acquit themselves well in parts that don’t leave a lot of room for them to work.
As a current law student, the moot court practice gave me terrifying flashbacks. From the odd formal beginning to the pointed questions that seem to exist just to throw you off your game. A lot of the details of Ginsburg time in law school rang especially true, even though her time in law school was about fifty years ago.
On the Basis of Sex is fine. It is everything one would expect from a biopic and nothing else. It feels a little disappointing, but this is a year where Bohemian Rhapsody, which is outright bad outside of the music and a performance or two, got nominated for Best Picture. On the Basis of Sex could certainly have been worse.