Before the Notorious RBG became notorious
There’s honestly not a huge difference between the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg drama “On the Basis of Sex” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Both movies usher us into the private lives of public figures while commemorating some of their biggest hits, whether that’s “We Will Rock You” or a victory in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that transforms the legal landscape and the lives of American women.
Both, too, play strictly according to the rules of biopic formula, which is why “On the Basis of Sex” is watchable, illuminating, and ultimately unmemorable — inspiring without being inspired. The movie could be considered a useful footnote to the documentary “RBG,” which came out earlier this year, itself a footnote to the long, legendary career of the Supreme Court justice. If the documentary sometimes feels blinded by admiration, the film takes pains to humanize Ginsburg and situate her early successes within the stifling male culture of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. The results still feel slightly canned.
“Basis” opens on Christmas Day.
Directed by Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Pay It Forward”) from a screenplay by first-time scripter (and Ginsburg’s nephew) Daniel Stiepleman, “Basis” is at its best when it subtly or starkly illustrates the long uphill climb faced by a woman lawyer. The movie opens with the 1953 matriculation of the incoming class of Harvard Law, the glee club singing “10,000 Men of Harvard” while Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is a lone figure in blue among self-satisfied gray suits. At a mixer for the few female students, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks each to explain why she feels qualified to take a slot away from a deserving man. True story.
In Ruth’s corner, then and forever, is her husband and fellow attorney Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), and “On the Basis of Sex” trots us through the couple’s early crises and the wife’s difficulty finding a law job despite being at the top of her class at both Harvard and Columbia. (While raising two children and nursing Marty through a cancer bout and taking his law classes as well as hers.) Some moments land squarely, sharply, and well, like the job interview with a seemingly sympathetic law partner who stares at her cleavage. Other moments take some getting used to: A tender bedroom love scene featuring Ginsburg in her underwear is like . . . like . . . watching Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her underwear.
Eventually we’re in 1970, she’s teaching a course on Sex Discrimination and the Law at Rutgers and hankering for the case that will allow her to start overturning centuries of statutes unfair to women. Marty hands her a tax case and the light bulb goes on: The person being discriminated against on the basis of sex is a man.
The movie leads us up to the climactic November 1972 arguing of Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, detailing the personalities and power struggles: Charlie Moritz (good old Chris Mulkey), penalized by the IRS for caring for his aged mother; Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the ACLU firebrand who agrees to join forces with the Ginsburgs while brusquely advising Ruth to “smile more” and not sound so “shrewish”; pioneering woman lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), glowering sagely from the movie’s corners.
Particularly interesting is the frazzled relationship between Ruth and her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), a righteous young student activist who can’t believe her mother is so square. (Ruth is aghast that Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” acts unethically for a good cause, so Jane kind of has a point.)
A bravura performance in the lead might break through this movie’s wall of glossy reserve, but Ginsburg isn’t a bravura personality (she listens to opera for that), and Jones is wise not to play her as one. The Brooklyn accent comes and goes, but the acting stays true and under the radar. “On the Basis of Sex” is dutiful Classics Illustrated filmmaking, with the villains easy to spot, the goal distant but obtainable, and an 11th-hour speech that just may save the day.
“We’re not asking you to change the country,” Ginsburg reminds the three judges on the bench before her during the film’s climax. “We’re asking you to protect the right of the country to change.” If those sentiments and others spur a young moviegoer to want to help effect that change, “On the Basis of Sex” will have done its job. It doesn’t have to be great — just good enough.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Directed by Mimi Leder. Written by Daniel Stiepleman. Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 120 minutes. PG-13 (language, some suggestive content)