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On the Basis of Sex

From her recent documentary to all the headlines about her health, it seems like there isn’t a lot more to say about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court. Which seems to make it simultaneously the best time and the worst time to release a biopic about her.

On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones in a transformative performance as Ginsburg, back when she was juggling law school with parenting a toddler and nursing her cancer-stricken husband. And she’s only one of a handful of women in a class of a hundred, to boot. However, Ginsburg’s time as a law student is confined to the first act. After that, we jump ahead to 1970, and the rest of the movie focuses on the landmark case of Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Thus Ginsburg is able to make headway in her pet cause of gender equality under law, with a case in which sex discrimination directly hurts an unmarried male.

To start with the positives, Felicity Jones is swinging for the fences here, and she turns in a tour-de-force starring performance. Kudos are also due to Armie Hammer, here playing Martin Ginsburg in yet another stellar supporting turn, and the chemistry between them is solid. I was also rather fond of Cailee Spaeny as the teenage Jane Ginsburg. Yes, she acts quite often as a whiny and tempestuous teenaged girl, but she’s still the center of some powerful moments.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Notorious RBG herself, who shows up for a brief cameo appearance at the end.)

Unfortunately, Jones’ wonderful performance runs entirely counter to the subject herself. By all accounts — it was clearly brought up in the documentary and even mentioned in the film itself! — Ginsburg refused to waste any time or energy in getting angry. She was a wallflower who patiently listened until she had all the information she needed to make a powerful argument and shut down all opposition. By contrast, Jones’ portrayal of RBG seems to get easily flustered, breaking down into righteous all-consuming anger at the drop of a hat. I honestly wish that Jones had been given the chance to try a more subtle performance, portraying Ginsburg as a calm and unflappable badass with an intelligent glint in her eye.

But of course that wouldn’t have made for a good Oscar clip. And that’s what this comes down to.

This movie is OSCAR BAIT. This is a prime slice of hardcore, unfiltered, cut-and-dried Oscar bait. I could see it in Kathy Bates showing up just long enough for the film to claim an Oscar winner in its cast. I could see it in the visuals, which are just good enough without crossing over into anything truly exceptional or innovative. I could hear it in the score of white noise.

But what really marks this movie as the most blatant of Oscar bait is in its treatment of feminist themes. Yes, the movie talks a great deal about systemic prejudice against women, sexual inequality, life under the patriarchy, and so on. The problem is that it consistently talks about these issues in the past tense. The filmmakers talk a great deal about all the ways women were legally inferior up until the 1970s, but they stop just short of talking about why these issues are still relevant today. Basically, the movie goes “There were all these hundreds of laws that discriminated on the basis of sex, but then Ruth Bader Ginsburg won a court case and all those laws were never a problem again.”

The filmmakers try to have it both ways, making a socially relevant statement in a way that doesn’t inspire any actual change or challenge anyone’s viewpoints. We get to feel good about the victories won on our behalf decades ago, without having to worry about the ongoing struggles we’re directly responsible for caring about and acting on within our lifetimes. It’s lazy, it’s irresponsible, and why the hell does Hollywood keep making these nearly fifteen goddamn years after Crash?!

To be entirely fair, I’m sure the filmmakers were perfectly well-intentioned in their message of feminism, and this is absolutely a story that deserves to be told. But the message is expressed in obnoxiously blunt terms. Seriously, the antagonists (played by Stephen Root and Sam Waterston) are such puffed-up misogynists that they don’t even closely resemble actual people. Moreover, it removes all sense of dramatic tension, as the filmmakers leave zero room for doubt regarding who’s in the right and who will come out on top. And in a biopic — with a conclusion that’s common knowledge — giving up even a scrap of dramatic tension is a huge misstep.

On a miscellaneous note, I suppose I should talk about Justin Theroux’s supporting turn. I couldn’t get a handle on this guy’s character, and it took me the whole movie to figure out why: He’s not really playing a character. His motivations whiplash from one extreme to the other, depending on the needs of the plot. He’s a plot device, meant to either hold Ginsburg back or allow her to move forward, depending on whatever the plot needs in the moment.

On the Basis of Sex was clearly never built to last longer than this Oscar season, and I’m sure it will be replaced by one or two better feminist movies by this time next year. While a decent awards vehicle for Felicity Jones, the plot is formulaic and the script is deliberately void of anything new or interesting to say. There’s no way I can recommend this to anyone but the most hardcore of feminists and award completionists.

Stick with the documentary.

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