“On the Ba­sis of Sex” re­view

Di­rec­tor: Mimi Leder Star­ring: Felic­ity Jones, Ar­mie Ham­mer, Justin Th­er­oux

Variety - - Contents - BY PETER DE­BRUGE

Five months af­ter the re­lease of Ruth Bader Gins­burg doc­u­men­tary “RBG” — whose run­away suc­cess, at a stag­ger­ing $14.3 mil­lion, all but con­firms its sub­ject’s un­likely rock-star sta­tus — and di­rectly on the heels of jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh’s con­tentious ap­point­ment to the Supreme Court comes “On the Ba­sis of Sex,” a rous­ing ori­gin story for the gen­der-equal­ity pi­o­neer many lib­er­als hope will live for­ever. Like last year’s “Mar­shall,” the en­gag­ing and well-acted, if not en­tirely well- cast, biopic hu­man­izes a civil rights cru­sader who has since be­come an icon and a role model, fo­cus­ing on the up­hill bat­tle of her early ca­reer.

Di­rected by TV pro­ducer-di­rec­tor Mimi Leder (re­turn­ing to the big screen, where she helmed such block­busters as “The Peace­maker” and “Deep Im­pact”), “On the Ba­sis of Sex” is cer­tainly the higher-pro­file of 2018’s two Gins­burg projects. With Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment still blaz­ing fol­low­ing a heated midterm elec­tion sea­son, the film should have no trou­ble at­tract­ing an au­di­ence on the ba­sis of its many other mer­its.

One place where things have al­ways been equal is in the Gins­burgs’ home, which is the very do­main where Leder and screen­writer Daniel Stieple­man, Gins­berg’s nephew, elab­o­rate on what the pub­lic al­ready knows about Ruth (Felic­ity Jones) and her hus­band, Marty (Ar­mie Ham­mer). Pre­dictably ador­ing, Stieple­man’s script il­lus­trates the spe­cial bond be­tween his aunt and un­cle, build­ing up to the one case the two lawyers ar­gued to­gether: In Charles E. Moritz v. Com­mis­sioner of In­ter­nal Rev­enue, the cou­ple shrewdly demon­strated that sex dis­crim­i­na­tion flows in both di­rec­tions, ar­gu­ing that a man who had quit his job to take care of his ail­ing mother ought to qual­ify for the “care­giver” ex­emp­tion the IRS had ex­pressly in­tended only for women.

Though Jones and Ham­mer share a charm­ing on-screen chem­istry, the cast­ing of the two stars di­min­ishes at least one di­men­sion of the Gins­burgs’ life­long strug­gle for civil rights, pre­sent­ing them as generic char­ac­ters straight out of the Sears cat­a­log or a Dou­glas Sirk movie, rather than mem­bers of a re­li­gious mi­nor­ity who would have had to con­tend with anti-semitism at work and school in the 1950s and ’60s. The film­mak­ers should have re­al­ized that Ruth Bader Gins­burg isn’t just a role model to women but a hero to the New York Jewish com­mu­nity as well, and they have been rightly crit­i­cized for down­play­ing that as­pect of her iden­tity, choos­ing a glam­orous English ac­tress who, while petite and pow­er­ful like Ruth, other­wise looks and sounds so lit­tle like the woman she’s play­ing. That’s not to say that Jones, who ably jug­gles the char­ac­ter’s youth­ful tug-of-war be­tween de­ter­mi­na­tion and self-doubt, doesn’t give a fine per­for­mance; it’s just that there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess­fully eras­ing a British ac­cent and as­sum­ing a Brook­lyn one.

Such choices are early clues to the in­tensely ha­gio­graphic tone of a film that be­gins and ends with scenes of Ruth climb­ing steps to the sound of My­chael Danna’s change-is- coming score. At first, it’s the stairs to Har­vard Law School, where she was one of just nine women ad­mit­ted in 1956 (Marty was in the class ahead

of her), and where dean Er­win Gris­wold (“Law & Or­der” vet Sam Water­ston) hu­mil­i­ated each of those ladies over din­ner by ask­ing why she was “oc­cu­py­ing a place that could have gone to a man.” She is treated no bet­ter in class by Prof. Brown (Stephen Root), which makes it all the more sat­is­fy­ing in the fi­nal act to see these two chau­vin­ists seated with op­pos­ing coun­sel when the Gins­burgs fi­nally head to court. (Chris Mulkey plays their client Moritz.)

Years be­fore that can hap­pen, how­ever, Marty is di­ag­nosed with tes­tic­u­lar cancer, forc­ing Ruth to work dou­bly hard to keep up with both of their classes and raise their daugh­ter while he un­der­goes ra­di­a­tion treat­ment. Though Marty sur­vives, the fam­ily de­cides to move to New York, where Ruth fin­ishes her law de­gree at Columbia — an­other knock against the sex­ist prigs at Har­vard — then strug­gles to find work as an at­tor­ney, even­tu­ally land­ing a teach­ing job at Rut­gers. In these early scenes, one can imag­ine Leder chan­nel­ing ob­sta­cles she also had to face as a fe­male di­rec­tor, as in a job in­ter­view that seems to be go­ing well un­til the male em­ployer’s eyes drift from her face to her neck­line.

Like the Meryl Streep por­tions of last year’s “The Post,” the de­pic­tion of the var­i­ous ways, both overt and un­der­handed, that the sys­tem has con­spired to un­der­mine a woman’s con­vic­tions over the past half- cen­tury res­onates es­pe­cially strong at this mo­ment. Leder, like Ruth’s daugh­ter, Jane (played by Cailee Spaeny), be­longs to an in­de­pen­dent-minded gen­er­a­tion that grew up be­liev­ing what Gins­burg was fight­ing for. The re­al­iza­tion of that progress not only em­bold­ened Ruth but sug­gests how much to­day’s teens take for granted, and ex­plains why au­di­ences may be com­pelled to ap­plaud each time she puts the Man in his place.

In a sense, what makes Gins­burg im­pres­sive is not nec­es­sar­ily all the things she was the first to do but the sum to­tal of her life’s work, fight­ing case af­ter case in which she ad­vo­cated for equal rights re­gard­less of gen­der, and in do­ing so, chipped away at in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized sex­ism in Amer­ica. “On the Ba­sis of Sex” tells the story of the first such law­suit in Gins­burg’s ca­reer, con­trast­ing the se­ri­ous­ness of Jones’ per­for­mance with such col­or­ful side char­ac­ters as ACLU le­gal di­rec­tor Mel Wulf (a the­atri­cal Justin Th­er­oux), who would later sug­gest her for the Supreme Court, and lawyer-ac­tivist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, whose pres­ence alone makes the tiny role sig­nif­i­cant).

Iron­i­cally, it was Ruth’s ad­ver­saries in the Moritz case who, hop­ing to stress the dan­ger­ous prece­dent that might be set by over­turn­ing the tax law, pro­vided her with a list of all the sex­ist statutes she would ded­i­cate her ca­reer to chal­leng­ing. Though the movie wraps well be­fore she gets to those other cases, it sticks around long enough for Ruth to find her call­ing and her self-con­fi­dence in the court­room. For those of us with strong women in our own lives, the ef­fect is like sit­ting down at the knee of a grand­mother or a great-aunt and hear­ing about her strug­gle to find her place be­fore women were en­cour­aged to work or study. For those not blessed with such coura­geous fig­ures, Gins­burg’s story will be es­pe­cially in­spi­ra­tional, mak­ing it rel­a­tively easy to for­give a few ma­nip­u­la­tive and melo­dra­matic touches in the telling.

No longer the most “no­to­ri­ous” Supreme Court jus­tice (with Ka­vanaugh’s ap­point­ment), Gins­burg may be a real Amer­i­can hero, but be­cause her ac­com­plish­ments are bal­anced by such hum­ble­ness, she will never be as dy­namic a char­ac­ter as Erin Brock­ovich or as charis­matic as Elle Woods. Then again, an RBG biopic shouldn’t be about siz­zle and show­per­son­ship, but hard work and de­ter­mi­na­tion in the face of ram­pant, seem­ingly un­remit­ting sex­ism, and in that re­spect, Leder’s film gets its pri­or­i­ties right. CRED­ITS: A Fo­cus Fea­tures re­lease of a Par­tic­i­pant Me­dia pro­duc­tion, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Alibaba Pic­tures. Pro­duc­ers: Robert Cort, Jonathan King. Ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers: Jeff Skoll, Daniel Stieple­man, Betsy Dan­bury, Karen Loop. Di­rec­tor: Mimi Leder. Screen­play: Daniel Stieple­man. Cam­era (color): Michael Grady. Editor: Michelle Te­soro. Mu­sic: My­chael Danna. Re­viewed at Har­mony Gold screen­ing room, Los Angeles, Nov. 1, 2018. MPAA Rat­ing: PG-13. Run­ning time: 120 MIN. Cast: Felic­ity Jones, Ar­mie Ham­mer, Justin Th­er­oux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Sam Water­ston, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey

Class Act Felic­ity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Gins­burg in Mimi Leder’s “On the Ba­sis of Sex.”

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