On the Basis of Sex (2018)
It was a man’s world. So she changed it.
In 1970, lawyer Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) brings to the attention of his wife, law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), a rather unique legal case: a Colorado man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) is being refused a tax exemption for the cost of hiring a nurse to care for his ailing mother.
Ruth realizes that what seems like a fairly mundane tax code matter actually has deeper implications. Moritz’s claim is being shot down because of his gender — by law, the rebate he is seeking is only given to women, who are assumed to be primary caregivers, and he is, of course, a man. Being a supremely gifted law practitioner whose career has been curtailed by institutional discrimination, she realizes that, if she can get the law to recognize the injustice being perpetrated against Moritz, it will have a knock-on effect in getting the numerous legal prohibitions against the rights of women addressed. And so the fight is on.
On the Basis of Sex is an interesting and frustrating movie, in that it takes an incredibly important event (Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue), centered on an incredibly important figure (future Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and tells its story in the most conventional and straightforward manner imaginable. The result is a film that is emotionally satisfying (it’s hard not to be moved by hard-won justice) but also more than a little patronizing, a work that sketches the issues it’s addressing in broad, obvious strokes.
Perhaps that’s necessary to distill the complexities of the actual events down into a compelling narrative, but On the Basis of Sex never quite dispels the feeling that it’s giving us fairly archetypal approximations of these people and these battles, and its efforts to portray the entrenched sexism of the time occasionally come across as hamfisted. There’s a scene where Bader Ginsburg and her daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), are walking down a city street and the camera tracks past a very male-gazey billboard before zeroing in on a group of construction workers who begin catcalling and wolf-whistling. Now, it’s not that these kinds of incidents didn’t (and don’t) happen, or that the advertising industry wasn’t (and isn’t) rife with problematic imagery and messaging, but under Mimi Leder’s direction, the constant barrage becomes as thuddingly regular as a slave galley’s drumbeat.
Which may, in fact, be the point — the constant barrage of background radiation misogyny is exhausting, not exciting, and the struggle against it is a marathon, not a sprint. The grueling nature of this punishingly asymmetrical battle is leavened by a particularly strong cast, with Jones’ feisty, driven, steely Bader Ginsburg the clear standout. It’s a really great turn from Jones, who holds her own even when trading veiled barbs with opponents played by actors of the caliber of Stephen Root, Office Space (1999), and Law & Order’s Sam Waterston (both of whom might as well be credited as The Patriarchy but, as already noted, we’re dealing in archetypes here). Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name (2017), isn’t presented with any real challenges by the role of Ruth’s husband, Martin Ginsburg, but he does as well as he usually does, while Justin Theroux, The Girl on the Train (2016), and Kathy Bates, Misery (1990), get showy supporting parts as ACLU attorney Mel Wulf and veteran lawyer and feminist activist Dorothy Kenyon, respectively.
On The Basis of Sex is solid as a rock and about as weighty. While it’s very much operating within the well-established parameters of the prestige biopic, its subject matter and its indelible central character mean that even when it’s formally unexciting, it’s still engaging.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson