“On the Basis of Sex” begins in 1954, when a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) arrives for her first day at Harvard Law. She is one of nine women in an incoming class of 500, a disparity signaled by the sight of a blue dress in a sea of dark-toned suits. It’s the kind of image that more or less sums up the picture that follows — polished, effective, a bit obvious — but it also tells its own concise story. Ginsburg doesn’t fit in with this mostly male enclave, and she shouldn’t; one day she’ll surpass them all.
Directed by Mimi Leder (“Pay It Forward,” “Deep Impact”) from a script by Daniel Stiepleman (who happens to be Ginsburg’s nephew), “On the Basis of Sex” is the second cinematic crowd-pleaser about its subject to emerge this year, following Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG.” The emergence of first a hit documentary and now this slick, prosaic Hollywood biopic is a testament to Ginsburg’s legacy as a progressive icon and a tireless champion of women’s rights, but also to her startling ascendancy in the public imagination, her claim to the kind of cultural prominence rarely bestowed on octogenarian Supreme Court justices.
In recent years she has been seized upon as a totem of Trump-era resistance and an irreplaceable voice of liberal reason within a judicial branch that, just a few months ago, found itself at the center of a galvanizing political firestorm. Every fresh report of a health scare — most recently Friday’s news that Ginsburg had undergone a successful lung-cancer operation — sends a shudder through the body politic.
“On the Basis of Sex” returns us to a moment that seems simpler and less nerve-racking in some respects, but also far more depressing and discouraging in others. The supremacy of the male sex is the implicit law of the land, and it has an infinite variety of arched eyebrows and condescending snickers with which to express itself. The movie, which builds to a 1972 case that launched Ginsburg’s legal career and helped reverse decades of discriminatory laws against women, seeks to take the measure of our social progress, the differences between now and then.
It also seeks to remind us of the intellectual command and emotional fortitude it took for a woman to distinguish herself in a profession long assumed to be the dominion of men. As Ruth and her female classmates are condescendingly reminded by their dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston, a nice nod to “Law & Order”), they are at Harvard not because they belong there, but because of a lofty institutional notion of equality that does not, in any meaningful or practical sense, exist.
Jones, a British actress given the tricky assignment of playing an American icon at a still-unformed stage, meets the challenge by emphasizing her character’s quick wit, resourceful imagination and peerless work ethic. It’s an engaging performance if not a fully realized one, which has less to do with a wobbly Brooklyn accent than with the picture’s reductive conception of the character. “On the Basis of Sex” duly pays lip service to its subject’s formidable mind — “There is no aspect of law at which Ruth Ginsburg can be bested!” someone helpfully interjects at one point — but it has little sense of how to dramatize this beyond shots of desks piled with books or a montage of clacking typewriter keys.
The movie fares better (as most movies do) as a portrait of the heart. For all the inferior men in her midst, Ruth has a crucial exception in her loving, gregarious husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), himself a Harvard second-year bound for a career in tax law. And like “RBG,” “On the Basis of Sex” flirts with the too rarely proposed theory that behind every successful woman there is a supportive, blissfully unthreatened man.
If Jones and Hammer never fully jettison their movie-star charisma, that more or less suits Leder’s broad-strokes approach, which builds its argument more through symbolic gestures than fine-grained portraiture. The 6-foot-5-inch Hammer may not be an exact physical match for his character, but it hardly dispels the pleasure of seeing the man happily chopping vegetables as his wife returns home from work. (We’ve already been clued in to the horrors of Ruth’s cooking — a detail that, like her Jewish heritage, is briefly referenced and then forgotten).
The Ginsburgs have a model marriage, one that serves as an implicit corrective to the prescribed gender roles of the era. They are ideally matched not just because their skills complement each other so nicely, but because they choose to assert themselves as equals even when the world tells them otherwise.
That Ruth assumes the brunt of the sacrifices is a sign not of her subservience, but her strength. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth takes on his coursework without breaking a sweat. When he recovers and joins a law practice in New York, she transfers from Harvard to Columbia. Unlike her husband, Ruth will have no luck getting hired as an attorney and instead takes a job as a professor, seemingly left to inspire the next generation of legal and social change rather than participating in the present one.
But she gets her day in court years later, in the early ’70s, when Marty alerts her to the cause of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), an unmarried man who has been denied a tax deduction to hire a caregiver for his ailing mother, the assumption being that all caregivers must be women. The irony isn’t lost on anyone — a gender rights case in which the aggrieved party is a man — but neither is the delicious possibility of using it to bring down an entire history of American laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.
Once Ruth takes on the case, with Marty as her partner, the movie proceeds along its smooth, involving if thoroughly unsurprising course. I say unsurprising not because the outcome is a foregone conclusion, but because the filmmakers treat it as though it were. Like many historical dramas that seek to illuminate the prejudices of yesteryear, “On the Basis of Sex” has trouble bringing the past into a believable present tense. It plots out its narrative strategies with the complacency of hindsight.
This applies not only to the inevitable 10th Circuit Court of Appeals showdown, which is written and played for superficial suspense, but also the various conflicts that arise along the way. Each serves a carefully engineered purpose: to introduce an element of adversity that will quickly be resolved, and to make Ruth seem like more than a two-dimensional heroine without challenging her position too severely.
Her old friend Mel Wulf (an amusingly obnoxious Justin Theroux), now legal director of the ACLU, shows up to help sharpen their case and also to show that even presumed allies embodied the instinctive chauvinism of the era. Ruth argues frequently with her spirited teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who sees her mother as both arrogant and ineffectual: Next to the advances of second-wave feminism and the Vietnam protest movement, trying to effect change or raise awareness through the law seems hopelessly passé.
“On the Basis of Sex” does its best to prove otherwise, but it is hindered by its own lack of imagination, its contentment with an easy-listening summary of its subject’s accomplishments. It would be silly to expect this movie to achieve the cinematic equivalent of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s brilliance, but you can’t help wishing it had more to offer than righteous speeches and stirring glances, that it put a few more ideas in your head to go with that lump in your throat.
‘On the Basis of Sex’
Rated: PG-13, for some language and suggestive content
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: Opens Dec. 25 at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles