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‘On the Basis of Sex’ can’t win the case

Mimi Leder's new film shows how Ruth Bader Ginsberg surmounted sexism (courtesy of Focus Features).

“On the Basis of Sex” is the film we desperately need right now … is what I wish I could say about this paint-by-numbers biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which arrives half a year after the successful documentary “RBG” and two months after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. The film could have been memorable and inspiring like the gender-equality trailblazer herself, but with its canned and obsequious approach to Ginsburg’s story, “On the Basis of Sex” doesn’t quite do the justice justice.

The film begins in 1956. In the opening shots, hordes of impassive men dressed in suits walk in slow motion as a male chorus croons in the background. A young, fresh-faced woman wearing a bright blue dress stands out from the crowd. She is young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) on her way to Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in the class. For the first part of the film, Ruth, with her loving husband Marty (Armie Hammer) by her side, navigates the sexist terrains of law school and domestic life. Although she scores at the top of her class, her life is roiled by a disdainful dean, an unexpected cancer diagnosis for Marty and discriminating hirers. Again and again, she encounters men who refuse to give her what she wants because of her sex, and she never fails to fire a laudable retort or speech to counter them.

Ruth, after being repeatedly discriminated against by law firms, becomes a professor at Rutgers and inspires the next generation to fight for gender equality. But really, she wants to work toward that goal now rather than only inspiring future change. Fortunately, an opportunity emerges. Marty hands her the case of Charles Moritz, who was denied a tax deduction by the government because he is neither a woman nor a married man. If she can get the court to rule that a man was discriminated against on the basis of sex, that case could set a precedent to help topple laws that discriminate against women in the future.

Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue is no Brown v. Board of Education, but “On the Basis of Sex” thoroughly convinces you of its importance. Keeping the audience captivated while filming the ups and downs of a legal case proves to be a challenge, however, and director Mimi Leder leans on a montage of rather dull shots of typewriters in motion and close-ups on certain phrases pulled from documents. As lawyers discuss the details of how to best argue their sides, the scenes plod a bit in legalese.

“On the Basis of Sex” is not subtle. Nearly every scene, line of dialogue, camera shot and music choice has a clear and obvious motivation behind it. And they’re all sewed together in uninspired ways — sad scenes have sappy piano music and dark colors; happy scenes have victorious string music and bright colors. That male actor is saying that line to show how rampant sexism was at the time. That female actor is saying that line to show that action needs to be taken to achieve equal rights.

The film operates on a tad too much logic and continuity, to the point where you have an idea of the next shot or line before it even occurs. When Marty gets hurt, we wait for the shots of Ruth being worried and frightened. They happen. While visiting Charles Moritz, Ruth sees a very conspicuously-placed photograph and makes an off-hand comment about him being a drum major. Then, we wait for this to fit neatly into their ensuing conversation. It happens. The end result is that the audience is denied any feelings of revelation or surprise.

I was constantly aware that I was watching a film, that pixels were being projected onto a screen, and that the actors had been casted by agents and were spouting lines while being captured by a cameraman. I could almost see the boom mic above their heads. Felicity Jones does a serviceable job portraying Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leaving no doubt about her character’s determination and intelligence, although her accent slips occasionally. Armie Hammer perfectly embodies the charm and devotion of Marty, whose character is sometimes too good to be true. The actors playing the ignorant, stubborn and almost comically sexist male characters tend to blend together but serve their function. Playing Ruth’s daughter, Jane, Cailee Spaeny steadily vocalizes often overwrought dialogue, although her character feels more like a device to articulate challenges to Ruth’s beliefs than a complete human being.

Despite its flaws, “On the Basis of Sex” conveys a powerful story about a powerful woman. Given the lack of stories like these on screen, that’s commendable enough. But, like the laws of Ruth’s time, it still has a long way to go.

Contact Grace Zhou at gkzhou ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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