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Non-Review Review: On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex is a sturdy, old-fashioned awards season film.

On the Basis of Sex is earnest, unshowy and very conventional in both concept and execution. All of its beats are familiar, all of its rhythms predictable. It’s not especially inventive or innovative. It is a meat-and-potatoes awards fare, a fascinating story that is told in an uncluttered manner. While there are still a handful of these sorts of films released every year, it often seems like the ground is shrinking out from under them. As awards season has leaned towards quirky indie films like Vice or The Favourite, it has left films like On the Basis of Sex and Can You Ever Forgive Me? sitting in the dust.

Ruthless litigation.

There is nothing wrong with old-fashioned awards fare, even if On the Basis of Sex occasionally feels conflicted about which particular mode of old-school biographical film it seeks to emulate; it starts like a conventional subject’s-life-in-two-hours piece in the style of films like Ghandi or Patton, and then shifts into the slightly more modern twist on the genre that tends to focus on one formative event like Frost/Nixon or The Queen or Elvis & Nixon. It is a strange shift, with On the Basis of Sex spending half an hour on a general introduction to Ruth Bader-Ginsberg before focusing on the meat of this particular story.

This lack of focus is not a major issue. Old-fashioned awards fare can work reasonably well with the right material and talent, despite seeming quaint by the standards of the time. On the Basis of Sex never stands out from the crowd in the same way as its central character, but then that might be expecting too much given that surprisingly long shadow cast by Ruth Bader-Ginsberg.

Courting controversy.

Ruth Bader-Ginsberg has evolved into a folk hero. There are any number of reasons for this, from her strong advocacy of progressive perspectives on the United States Supreme Court, the important role that she played in shaping and defining jurisprudence as it related to equality of the sexes, her remarkable life story, and the sense in which her persona lends itself to memefication. Recent years have seen Bader-Ginsberg’s work-out regime become a subject of popular interest, a documentary focused on her life and accomplishments, and even a cameo in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.

A traditional biographical film seems like the next logical step in this development of the mythology around Bader-Ginsberg, particularly given the (entirely understandable) investment in recent biographical films about major (and even minor) skirmishes in the battles for racial and gender equality in the United States and beyond; Marshall, Selma, Loving, A United Kingdom, The Post. Using historical figures as a prism into the struggle for equality, these films reflect contemporary anxieties about the treatment of women and minorities in modern society.

Keeping it brief.

Bader-Ginsberg is the perfect subject for such a film, given not only her own status as a trailblazer, but also her historical role as an advocate for equality and reform. It is surprising that it took so long for a film like this to develop, particularly considering the elevation of Bader-Ginsberg as an avatar of progressive values within the United States legal and social systems. On the Basis of Sex understands these twin appeals of Bader-Ginsberg as a subject, and so tries to balance between them. It starts as a study of her college years, and then focuses on the most impactful case of her legal career.

There is an occasional sense watching On the Basis of Sex that the film is trying to satisfy two familiar narrative templates, to offer both a holistic view of Bader-Ginsberg’s life and build a story around one pivotal moment from that life. The film opens with an exploration of Bader-Ginsberg’s time at Harvard and Columbia, demonstrating both the challenges she faced when her husband took ill and the barriers the prevented her from pursuing the law through common practice. However, after this introduction, On the Basis of Sex pivots to focus on the particulars of one single legislative case.

If this case fails, her career is toast.

There is a sense in which On the Basis of Sex is trying to have its cake and eat it, trying to offer a film that appeals to both the older model of biographical film that tried to condense an entire life into one-hundred-and-twenty minutes and the slightly newer variant that tries to explore a single event with a tight focus as a microcosm of a larger piece of social commentary. While not a fatal flaw with the film, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t manage to transition between the two modes especially gracefully.

It helps that On the Basis of Sex is in safe hands. Mimi Leder is an unfussy director who gets the core beats of the story being told and who understands the central appeal of this sort of biographic film. Leder communicates most effectively through visuals, repeatedly framing Felicity Jones so as to emphasise how much smaller she seems than the men around her. The opening shot presents Jones lost amid “the men of Harvard”, and a later sequence crams her into an elevator with much burlier and larger men so as to emphasise her shorter stature.

Things are looking up.

Indeed, it seems like Armie Hammer was cast to make Jones seem even smaller. While the decision to cast Martin Ginsberg as a supportive and enabling spouse is welcome and refreshing, particularly given attempts behind the scenes to make him more conventionally antagonistic, the movie is occasionally over-invested in portraying his helpfulness to the detriment of demonstrating his wife’s own formidable wit and insight. Martin is presented as a vibrant, canny and loving spouse with great ideas and incredible patience, with an understanding of people that Ruth seems to lack.

During a moot court designed to stress test the equality case at the centre of the narrative, Martin (politely) interrupts his wife to offer good and well-meaning advice on how she might best present her arguments. This is somewhat consistent with how the men around Ruth have treated her keen grasp of details and facts, to the point that one college professor remarks, “Was that an answer or a fillibuster?” However, having Martin make that sore of correction presents Ruth as unrealistically socially awkward for a professor already established as capable of witty back-and-forth with her own college students.

Not up for deBates.

To be fair to On the Basis of Sex, the film compensates for these occasional missteps with two key strengths. The first is the cast, which are generally good and fun to watch. Jones and Hammer share a casual and easy chemistry. Despite the occasional awkwardness of presenting Martin as more socially proficient than his wife, it is heartening to see the standard gender dynamics in this sort of biographic film reversed. It is clear that Martin cares for and loves for Ruth, that he supports her even as she commits to potentially risky and reckless courses of action.

The supporting cast is also solid. Leder reteams with fellow Leftovers alum Justin Theroux, who is perfectly cast as a jerkish seventies lawyer. Kathy Bates is somewhat underutilised in a two-scene cameo that could easily have been extended into a full-fledged supporting role. The film punches above its weight even in casting otherwise stock antagonists; Sam Waterson, Stephen Root and Jack Reynor play the obligatory two-dimension smug villainous establishment roles, with Reynor’s accent is somehow more American than that of his cast mates.

Judging too harshly.

The other major advantage that On the Basis of Sex has is an earnest affection for the role that the law plays in defining and shaping culture, an understanding of its social function and utility that often evades these sorts of films. This is reflected in Bader-Ginsberg’s crusade and the state’s response to it, but it also plays out in an extended discussion of how Swedish tax law shaped an entire generation of marital norms, which in turn altered the entire shape of a society. Films anchored in court room drama often focus too hard upon the mechanics of high drama interrogation scenes, losing track of the big ideas behind them.

On the Basis of Sex is solid mid-tier awards fare. It’s a little too generic and formulaic to stand out, particularly in the context of a crowded awards season populated by much more dynamic and vital explorations of similar topics. However, the film has its own pleasures, particularly as a gentle and affectionate tribute to one of the most influential figures in American culture. It doesn’t offer a lot of particularly nuanced insight, and it doesn’t dig beneath the surface, but it is well-intentioned and effective for what it sets out to do.

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