Film Review: “On the Basis of Sex” Unfortunately Bores And Disappoints

“We have to get credit cards in our husbands’ names,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones says in the film. I could say several words about that, none of them appropriate, but I think everyone knows in this day and age that discrimination based on sex and gender is baseless, irrational and ridiculous. 

On the Basis of Sex explores the career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how she overturned many sex discrimination laws. It follows her from her very first day at Harvard Law School as one of nine women admitted into her class, through her husband’s fight with cancer while he attends Harvard with her and into her career as a professor at Rutgers Law School. 

Her husband, Martin Ginsburg, the lovely Armie Hammer, is a successful tax attorney who stumbles upon a tax case about a male caretaker named Charles Moritz. Moritz was denied a tax deduction, for caring for his elderly mother, because he is a man. Both Ruth and Martin take on the case together, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, to use this one tax case to overturn all the discrimination laws. 

The opening shot of the film is stellar: in a sea of black suited men walking through the campus strides a singular woman wearing a sea blue dress with iron-willed eyes. The contrast between the crisp suits and the flow of her full skirt was also so great in setting up the inequity in number working against Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even from the first scene. 

Despite praiseworthy performances from all the film’s actors, On the Basis of Sex falls flat. It’s so clear cut and to the point that it’s too predictable. Of course, we all know that Ruth Bader Ginsburg wins, but the suspense just wasn’t effective enough that I ended up hoping she would win the case just to get it over with. 

Even those on the defense team, Erwin Griswold and James H. Bozarth, aren’t sinister, conniving or clever enough to make believable villains or lawyers. The defense team has several scenes amongst themselves in which they justify their side of the case for perpetuating the history and culture of gender discrimination, but they do it with such a sleazy, holier-than-thou tone that they just end up sounding ridiculous and idiotic.

The film doesn’t spend much time on exploring why these men believe in what they believe, and they’re so overconfident that they don’t even spend the appropriate amount of time preparing a convincing argument against the Ginsburgs. There is even one scene of all the men sitting around smoking and shooting the breeze while Griswold’s wife sits there mutely, merely occupying space. Maybe if we had heard what she thought in support of her husband, it would have been effective that those bozos continuing on with their idiocy. 

As for the actors, they all performed amazingly. Felicity Jones, probably one of my favorite British actresses since The Theory of Everything, was obviously spot-on. She may be small, but she had fire in her eyes and a strength that not many can pull off. However, her British accent peeped through often enough that it chipped at her performance. Her height difference with Hammer was also adorable. Hammer, after his killer performance in Call Me By Your Name, has been popping up left and right, and he continues to bring sincerity and a gentle touch to each new role he plays. 

I loved every moment these two switched gender roles in their household, practicing what they preach inside and outside the home. Martin would cook, the sight of a 6’5 man wearing an apron is priceless, offer emotional support and discipline the children. There isn’t a better houseman out there. Though he was an attorney in his own right, he never discredited Ruth in her career. Ruth was also a bad cook and terrible at conveying her love to her kids, mostly her teenage daughter, and the two lean all each other the way any functioning married couple should. 

According to the film, prior to Mortiz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Ruth had never practiced law in court. Her first attempt in moot court held in her home, while being grilled Mel Wulf, an awesome Justin Theroux, was pitiful and depressing. She somehow miraculously finds the right words in court eventually, but it was hard to believe all the same. In the film, Ruth powers through her challenges so easily that it’s easy to forget that she is only human. 

Of course, there were moments of contention. Martin and Ruth argue once on the streets of New York after Ruth is complimented for marrying a smart man like Martin, and Martin says nothing to defend her own education and merit. Justin Theroux plays the line between coward and self-protective well, both progressive in working for the ACLU but scared to back a revolutionary like Ginsburg. He often didn’t believe in Ruth to win her case, but it was good to see that for some, gender discrimination is not always so black and white. 

To her credit, Kathy Bates’ rare appearances as Dorothy Kenyon were golden. She was so adorably brusque and cantankerous that I kept wishing she would have another scene, just for fun. The moment she cowed Wulf into backing the Ginsburgs with their case was also one of the best scenes of the film. 

I also should mention that I really appreciate the efforts of the costume designer, Isis Mussenden. Those power suits were stunning, and seeing Ruth wear her signature sea blue time after time in different outfits was oh so pleasing. The fashion differences between the 50s and 70s didn’t go unnoticed either, and seeing more color, off-the-shoulder and hoops in the 70s wonderfully reflected the modern mindset of the public at the time. 

If you want to know more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legendary cult-icon, you should watch the film. If you love Hammer, Jones or Theroux, you should watch the film. It’s a cut and dry biopic, and it does its job. I wouldn’t name it the best biopic, but I also wouldn’t name it the worst. However, something went wrong somewhere to have these A-grade actors in a film and end up being forgettable.