On the Basis of Sex

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You know how people like to tell you “The book was better”? Well with this movie I can tell you, the documentary is better. And since it was a documentary that came out about 6 months ago, it’s probably better to catch that; although if you insist on being one of those pretentious folks that want to tell us “the book was better” you can still say that, in reference to the biography “Notorious RBG” on which a lot of the documentary was based. Now, for those annoying music fans that always want to tell you about a band “Their early stuff was better”…this might be the movie for them. It deals with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the early years; particularly one interesting case. It’s a case that probably would’ve been more interesting to read a quick story about, then watch a two hour movie, although the filmmakers do a decent job of throwing in many interesting aspects of this amazing woman’s life.

The film starts in the mid-’50s, with Ginsburg as one of only a handful of women in the Harvard Law freshman class. It was great casting to get Sam Waterston to play dean Erwin Griswold, although I’m not sure I buy a scene where he asks the women why they want to go into law, stating “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that would have gone to a man?”

I don’t know. Maybe he could’ve said that, but after finding out that 90% of BlacKkKlansman was fictional, it made me have my doubts on a lot of things you see on screen these days.

It is easy to believe her having a tough time finding a job at a New York City law firm, despite graduating at the top of her class (from both Harvard and Columbia).

The scenes with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), wouldn’t seem believable if I hadn’t already seen the documentary and fell in love with their love story, and how hard she worked to help him through law school when he was sick and fighting cancer, as well as raising a child.

The scene where Martin, one of the top tax lawyers in New York, wants to tell Ruth about a case he’s come across…gave me goosebumps. She’s at her wits end, having been relegated to teaching law and being at dinner parties where everyone falls all over Martin and she’s just the wife (a similarly powerful scene occurs in Glenn Close’s The Wife this year). Yet when she reads this case, she’s all in. It involves a caregiver (underrated character actor Chris Mulkey) that isn’t given a tax credit by the IRS because…he’s a man.

Felicity Jones is terrific in the lead role, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her grab an Oscar nomination. I heard one critic talk about how much prettier she is than the real Ginsburg. Again, check out that documentary. She was attractive when she was younger. People forget, she’s 85 now, so…the fact that she looks more like Larry King than Felicity Jones, I can let slide. Perhaps the only complaint you could have is that the Brooklyn, Jewish accent…seemed a bit toned down. Yet I could understand why the filmmakers wouldn’t want that to be much of a distraction (although I did wonder why they never mentioned her being Jewish).

Justin Theroux plays ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf, and he’s fine in the role, but I wish they would’ve toned down his character a bit. He reminded me of Bill Murray in Meatballs.

Cailee Spaeny is spunky as Ruth’s daughter, who is seen hitting her rebellious teen years. Watching mom and daughter fight over her report on To Kill a Mockingbird, or the legitimacy of protesting…was solid stuff. Finding out she ditched school to see Gloria Steinem, well…she might be a chip off the ol’ block.

Kathy Bates shows up in a few scenes, as civil rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon. She has some great insights she brings to the table, as well as a bit of comic relief.

The script was written by Ginsburgh nephew Daniel Stiepleman, and the picture was directed by Mimi Leder, who made it a little too cliche, and plays it a bit safe.

I also couldn’t help wondering about a few of the scenes and if they actually happened that way. For example, there’s a scene that should be really powerful, but merely had me questioning something. Three judges are rudely grilling Ginsburgh, and one says the word “woman” doesn’t appear in the Constitution. She replies that the word “freedom” doesn’t either. At that point, I imagined a movie audience breaking into applause (I was merely watching the DVD screener at home). This thought came to my mind, though. If that didn’t happen, please don’t add it to the film to make it more powerful. It’s one of the reasons “based on a true story” irks everyone these days. Now, if the nephew or Ginsburgh want to claim this really did happen, my next question is…does Ginsburgh not know about the First Amendment? (for those of you that don’t, it deals with “freedom of speech” which is the first place the word “freedom” appears in the Constitution).

I liked hearing The Chamber Brothers “Time Has Come Today” but that song is really entering the “Born to be Wild” territory of ‘60s songs that are overused on screen.

The movie does get credit for a great score, though.

Overall, the film needed a more nuanced storytelling. Just like I felt about The Theory of EverythingOscar-bait movies about brilliant people, shown in an ordinary way.

The final scene shows RBG now, in her diminutive, elderly stature, walking the steps of a courthouse. A much more powerful scene would’ve been showing her being sworn in by President Clinton to the Supreme Court.

This movie is a hung jury. 2 ½ stars out of 5.



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