With few modifications, “On the Basis of Sex” could have been made 30 years ago, and its rousing portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg would be a cheesy tearjerker with purpose. Today, it’s out of touch. Like the breakout summer documentary “RGB,” director Mimi Leder’s upbeat tribute is an admirable salute to one woman’s determination against a sexist world, but the non-fiction treatment is forced into heavy-handed dramaturgy and becomes an antiquated soap opera.
The justice’s inspiring legal trajectory, as the pioneering women’s rights lawyer who challenged gender discrimination laws and eventually overturned them in a series of aggressive cases, has inspired generations. Unfortunately, released at the most divisive moments in American politics — a matter of weeks after the Supreme Court became a flashpoint for national outrage, and its longstanding commitment to nonpartisanship went kaput — “On the Basis of Sex” plays like a sunny fantasy from a more optimistic age.
Despite a formidable performance by Felicity Jones, Leder’s maudlin approach is further hobbled by Daniel Stiepleman’s blunt screenplay, which takes Ginsberg’s imminent success for granted with an annoying wink-wink approach that underserves the value of her legacy. As concerns about the 85-year-old Ginsberg’s longevity linger on a court where liberal justices have been relegated to a minority, Leder’s movie arrives with an unspoken and inadvertent aura of fear.
Still, if you’re just getting up to speed on why Ginsberg matters — then and now, with a terrifying future on the horizon — “On the Basis of Sex” does a serviceable job of consolidating the earlier chapters. The movie opens on the steps of Harvard in the early 1950s, when Ginsberg entered law school as one of only a handful of women in her class. Discrimination comes at her from every angle, from the moment young Ginsberg takes her seat alongside a male classmate who gives her a discerning look; it carries over to a dinner hosted by the hawkish dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston, all stern looks and furrowed brows), the movie’s de facto villain. Their initial showdown provides the first guilty pleasure kick of watching Jones throw shade at any sexism casually …read more