On the Basis of Sex delivers mildly inspiring look at RBG’s early career

Felicity Jones plays the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jonathan Wenk | Focus Features)

Two years into the Bizarro World of the Trump administration, potential presidential candidates for 2020 are beginning to toss their hats into the ring, or at least stick a toe in the water. Some of them, inexplicably undeterred by the abuse heaped upon Hillary Clinton during her 2016 campaign, are women. Responses to these announcements can often be summarized as: “I don’t have a problem with women running for office; I just have a problem with her.”

While the prospect female leadership at high levels of government still seems to strike terror into many Americans, there’s one personality who seems to stand above the fray these days: 85-year-old Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The notorious RBG, as she’s widely and affectionately known, is quite simply a rock star of jurisprudence. Ginsburg even has her own action figure. Feminist moms proudly post pictures on social media of their daughters dressed up for Halloween or costume parties in RBG’s trademark lace jabot and big-framed glasses. When news breaks that she has gone to the hospital for cancer surgery, fans rush to volunteer to donate any organ that she might happen to need to have replaced. In an ugly world, RBG gives us hope.

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A documentary about Ginsburg’s career, simply titled RBG, gained ample praise last year; but it’s not a usual thing for Hollywood to make feature biopics about living people. On the Basis of Sex is an exception, and considering its subject’s advanced age and frequent health setbacks in recent years, maybe we should be glad that it got made while the lady in question is still around to enjoy it.

As a critic, I wish I could muster up as much enthusiasm for this movie as I feel for its subject. Mimi Leder directs from a rather creaky screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be RBG’s nephew. Though some truly fine actors give it their all, the dialogue is often stilted, as characters are called upon to guide the audience through some fairly technical legal procedure and try to make us care about a case that, on the face of it, doesn’t seem very exciting. Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which Ginsburg successfully argued in tandem with her husband Martin, an expert in tax law, set a precedent that she and other attorneys involved in the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project were able to use again and again in subsequent years to help overturn discriminatory legislation. The movie makes us cheer when the Ginsburgs pull it off, but getting there is a bit of a slog.

There’s some odd casting, notably English actress Felicity Jones in the title role. She conveys RBG’s steeliness and intellectual fervor well enough, while managing to obscure her British accent. But she definitely doesn’t sound like a Jewish girl from Brooklyn. Indeed, the subtext of discrimination against Jews in the legal profession in mid-20th-century America isn’t aired here at all. The narrative of the film’s first act is all about the uphill struggle of being one of very few women at Yale Law School, and the difficulty of her breaking into legal practice thereafter. It also presents the Ginsburgs as having something of a fairytale marriage, in which Martin (Armie Hammer) does all the cooking and never asks Ruth – or Kiki, as she’s known to family – to set aside her career ambitions in favor of his own.

The middle reel has RBG ensconced in academia at Rutgers in the early 1970s, drawing inspiration from the rebelliousness of her students and feeling a little shamed by the unwillingness of her own daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) to accept the sexism that permeates her world. Seeking a way to make change firsthand, Ruth seizes on Martin’s knowledge of the Moritz case, getting the brainwave that a situation in which the sex discrimination happens to be against a man (he’s denied the right to take a tax deduction for being the primary caregiver for his aging mother) might prove, ironically, easier to win.

Various allies are then called upon to help, including the ACLU’s Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who remembers Kiki from summer camp, and pioneering women’s rights litigator Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, confusingly costumed to look just like Bella Abzug). Sam Waterston plays the heavy: Erwin Griswold, a sexist Harvard Law dean who later resurfaces to try to get the Ginsburgs to drop the Moritz case.

On the Basis of Sex is a sturdy, workmanlike effort, featuring a generally competent cast. But it rarely rises to the level of inspiration that one wants from a movie about a modern superhero of women’s rights like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mostly, it made me want to go back and catch that documentary that I missed the first time around.

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