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On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a legend and a feminist icon; Which makes this middling biopic more the shame

© Universal Pictures / Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is a struggling attorney and new mother facing adversity and obstacles in her fight for equal rights. When she takes on a groundbreaking tax case with her husband, attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), it could change her career and the way the courts view gender discrimination.
      On paper, Ruth Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) seemed a rising lawyer marked for success. One of the first women accepted into Harvard Law School, she was the head of her class and made Law Review. But in the 1950s’ legal climate, Ginsburg ranked as either a nasty know-it-all the men wouldn’t like or a pretty lady the lawyer-wives would see as a threat. Wouldn’t she rather be a nice housewife, she’s asked and turned down wherever she applies. The only job she can get is teaching law at Rutgers. 
      The only man who understands her professional value is her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), a tax attorney enjoying his own brilliant career.
      Noticing an oddity in a law journal, Marty brings it to Ruth. It’s a case of sex discrimination in the tax code, but while most sexism in the legal system hurts women, this time men are victimized. Both Ginsburgs see a golden opportunity. The male judicial hierarchy will likely take discrimination against a man more seriously, offering them their chance to challenge and change legal precedent.
      If you’ve looked at the news over the last quarter-century, there’s a good chance you know how this story turns out. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a legend and feminist icon. That’s why it’s such a shame that this middling biopic does more to display the virtues of her husband than her own legal career. Director Mimi Leder (The Leftovers) plays it far too safe, burying the qualities that make Ginsburg extraordinary. 
      Leder gets distracted from Ginsburg’s tenacity. We see her being cowed, yelled at by her daughter and propped up by her husband. We’re told she’s a genius, but rarely do we see her prove it. 
     This isn’t helped by Jones’ inconsistent performance. Her speech pattern goes from strong Brooklyn vowels to vague American inflection to British. Leder’s need to make Ginsburg a saint further handicaps Jones with a flat character. Ruth never makes a misstep, she’s never wrong, and she sweetly bears all the burdens of sexism even by allies.
      Slightly galling is the portrayal of Marty Ginsburg as the greatest husband in the history of time. He cooks. He cleans. He parents. The image is solidified by Hammer’s winsome performance, making Marty Ginsburg the star of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s biopic. 
      Not all is lost. Jones and Hammer do well enough as a couple, and we learn about an important and overlooked court case. On the Basis of Sex gives you a pleasant but shallow look at a nuanced and interesting woman. 
       If you’re looking for real insight into Ginsburg’s genius, rent the documentary RBG on Hulu to learn more in less time. 
Fair Biopic • PG-13 • 120 mins.
~~~ New this Week ~~~
      In the decades since David Dunn (Bruce Willis) jailed his friend, he has become a Philadelphia vigilante. He’s super strong and nearly invulnerable; most of the city loves him. Until he confronts Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a seemingly supernatural troublemaker with multiple personalities.
      Both are captured and dumped in the mental hospital where David’s former friend Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) has long resided. All three men are subjected to experimental treatment to convince them they have no super powers. 
      This doesn’t go well.
      Elijah soon manipulates Crumb into orchestrating an escape, thus challenging Dunn to defeat not one but two supervillains to save his city.
      Director M. Night Shyamalan is known for two things: Twists and movies of wildly varying quality. Sometimes you’re treated to The Sixth Sense; other times you endure The Lady in the Water. There is no in between. This third installment of his heroes trilogy (including the underrated Unbreakable and the fun but shallow Split) offers a pensive look at the mythology of superheroes and villains. It isn’t a new plot, but it’s a meaty one, full of interesting ideas and possible characters. 
        Still, Shyamalan loves narrative tricks more than storytelling, so he may abandon good character work for a few flashy twists. That would be a shame, because David, Elijah and Kevin deserve their epic ending. 
Prospects: Flickering • PG-13 • 129 mins.