‘On the Basis of Sex’ Verdict: Felicity Jones Plays RBG in a ‘Staid’ Origin Story

2.5 stars (out of 4)

The timing couldn’t be better for a superheroine origin story on Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At 85 years old, she’s the glass ceiling-shattering figure of hope who has bipartisan respect and pop-culture hipster appeal. She’s the Notorious RBG, for crying out loud! But while On the Basis of Sex makes for a warm companion piece to the hit documentary RBG, the formulaic film doesn’t carry enough heft for consideration as a must-see Oscar contender.

A wildly miscast lead — two, in fact — almost brings the proceedings to a halt at the outset. For the role of Brooklyn-born-and-raised Ginsburg, we have bright-eyed Brit Felicity Jones. Both women are both petite with dark hair, and that’s where the similarities end. In 1956, a time when dutiful wives were supposed stay in the kitchen, young Ruth is one of only 9 women attending Harvard Law School. As if her studies weren’t demanding enough, she must care for her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), after he’s diagnosed with testicular cancer. They also have a young daughter named Jane. A baby boy arrives a few years later. Old-timey values be damned; Ginsburg is the breadwinner and rock of her household.

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's ON THE BASIS OF SEX.
Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Focus Features

Ruth is undeterred. She’s the well-prepared student who always knows the answer in the class, glaring at male professors that won’t call on her. When the law school dean (Sam Waterston) invites all the female students over his house for dinner, he instructs them all to introduce themselves and list the reason why they’re worthy of a slot in the program instead of a worthier man. Ruth snaps at him in a moment that seems fictionalized until you Google it later and realize this actually happened, sigh.

Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ruth struggles to find work in New York City just because of her gender. She finally lands a job as a college law professor teaching about gender laws, and as the film jumps to the early 1970s, she’s frustrated that she’s not fighting for her rights on the front lines of the court. Then Marty — a successful tax lawyer in his own right — comes across a case of gender bias case against a man. She jumps at the chance to probe deeper and expose all the outdated laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

The second half of the film focuses on this specific case, which concerns the taxation of a bachelor caring for his elderly mother. And though it’s treated with the urgency of a first-degree murder case, the material is dry. Of all Ginsburg’s early accomplishments, I’m surprised that screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman — who happens to be her nephew — decided to devote so much time to the case of the Colorado male caregiver. In RBG, for example, the directors focused more of their energies on Ginsburg first arguing in front the very court she would preside over decades later.

The blessing and the curse of examining the life of an 85-year-old is that there’s just too much ground to cover. Stiepleman only touches on Ginsburg’s domestic squabbles with her teenage daughter, who skips school to go to a Gloria Steinem rally. It’s a fascinating generational dilemma that just hangs there until the end credits. We also get a brief-but-tantalizing glimpses at the indignities that women still must face on a daily basis: Cabs won’t stop for them; men whistle at them; male superiors scarcely respect them.

The bigger WTF moments are inserted in the narrative to provoke an audience reaction, including the monologue-heavy climax. Everything from the by-the-numbers character arc to the swelling musical score is strictly Biopic 101. Director Mimi Leder comes from a TV background — she won an Emmy in the mid-1990s for helming a classic, heartbreaking early episode of ER — and she paces her film with a constricted small-screen sensibility. It all feels too familiar.

But the biggest problem of all, your honors, is the lead. Though Jones is a fine, Oscar-nominated actress, she’s just not right for this role. She struggles with the distinctive Brooklyn accent and never commands the screen. Her Ginsburg is an unsure, frustrated woman that drops silverware, fumbles a microphone in court and meekly surrenders to authority figures. (Justin Theroux, playing an alleged ally at the ACLU, constantly embarrasses her and instructs her to smile more.) The suave Hammer looks like he stepped out of the pages of GQ in an underwritten part.

Ginsburg’s legacy will endure. She’s resilient and brilliant and nobody would ever argue why she matters. The same can’t be said of On the Basis of Sex. Leder underlines this as Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself walks up the court steps in an exclamation point of a closing shot. Indeed, no clichéd drama can match the real deal.

On the Basis of Sex, now playing in select theaters, opens everywhere on Friday, January 11

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