ON THE BASIS OF SEX – Review
Happy 2019 film fans! What better way to ring in another 365 days of movies than to start things off with a good origin story? I’m thinking a thought balloon is popping over your head with the phrase “What the-?”. Yes, January’s a bit early for the arrival of this cinema year’s new crop of superheroes. Indeed, CAPTAIN MARVEL flies into the multiplex in early March, with another Cap..whoops, that’s another tangled legal tale, hero SHAZAM hot on her, um, boots a few weeks later. Those crusaders debuted in the comic pages, while this new film concerns a real-life hero (with many calling her a true superhero). This new movie bio, much like 2017’s MARSHALL focuses on an early case, before fame and a national position (this sub-genre goes back many decades, to films such as YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and YOUNG TOM EDISON). And like that former film, this is all about a Supreme Court Justice, one that is still “on the bench”. A few months ago she was also the subject of a well-received (box office and critical) feature documentary RBG. Now comes the “docu-drama” that presents her early years, from college to challenging court cases issued ON THE BASIS OF SEX.
The film starts at a start, actually, the beginning of the new school year, Fall at Havard Law School. Twenty-three-year-old Ruth Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) is one of nine women and 500 men in the 1956 incoming class. She encounters gender discrimination in Professor Brown’s (Stephen Root) class, and later at a welcoming dinner thrown by the school’s dean, Erwin Griswald (Sam Waterston). Luckily she has great support at home from husband and fellow law student (mostly business and taxes) Martin (Armie Hammer) and their toddler daughter Jane. The young family is put to the test when Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer. As he undergoes treatment, Ruth attends his classes in addition to her own. With her time split, she soars to the top of her class. Soon Martin is offered a job in NYC, But Griswald insists that she cannot earn her Havard degree by finishing her last classes at Columbia. After her graduation there, Ruth cannot get work at any of the male-dominated law firms, so she returns to Columbia as part of the faculty. Fast forward to the early 1970s, as the Woman’s Liberation movement dominates the news. It also becomes the focus of Ruth’s mostly female class. They, along with Ruth’s now teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), urge her to fight for the cause in the courts. But it’s a pro-bono case from her husband that sparks her interest. A single man in Denver, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) is suing the tax courts over denying him a deduction for hiring a caregiver for his ailing mother, a deduction always granted to a woman. Ruth is certain that this is a civil rights issue and tries to enlist the offices of the ACLU, now run by a childhood friend, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). When the new General Solicitor in DC, former Havard head Griswald, hears of the case he gathers Prof. Brown and up-and-comer lawyer Jim Bozarth (Jack Reynor) to stop her from “destroying society”. When a higher profile equality rights case becomes available, Wulf pressures Ruth to get Moritz to settle out of court. But will Ruth “punt” on that case in order to try for a “touchdown” on another one?
In her first feature starring role since the last truly great flick in the franchise, ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, Jones ably carries the film as the determined defender (and interpreter) of the law. She shows us the brilliant mind we’ve been aware of in the last few decades, but we also are privy to the very human being beneath the robes. There are the mutual respect and passion she shares with Martin, along with her frustrations with daughter Jane. Through Jones’s wide expressive eyes we see Ruth’s exhilaration as she arrives at a way to change minds, along with her sadness when dealing with those whose minds are immovable, particularly in her faculty dealing and in one promising job interview that suddenly derails. Hammer makes for a great partner in lew and life as the ever-supportive hubby who knows how to play “the game’ but is just as angry about “playing” it as is his wife. Another partner, who’s often a sparring “devil’s advocate” is Theroux, who imbues Wulf with lots of gregarious charm and pessimistic stubbornness. He thinks the world of Ruth, but he’s got to be convinced that she can follow through. The same could be said for Spaeny who makes Jane more than just a cliched sullen teenager. Her passion is the fuel for her mother, along with Ruth’s hope for a better future. Across the aisle is Waterson who’s a great hissable villain as an old “dinosaur” that refuses to change with times, thinking he and his cronies can stop the bulldozers coming for their “old boys’ club”, with Root and Reynor as his button-down, uptight henchmen. Making the most of smaller roles are Mulkey as the everyman who doesn’t think his protest matters to Kathy Bates in full rabble-rousing, cantankerous mode as a former suffragette and defender of the underdog Dorothy Kenyon.
Mimi Leder, directing her first feature film after a decade of TV work, brings real fire and fury to the often stodgy world of litigation and research. She cuts through the montages of library research and late night compositions to show us the adrenaline rush of creating the best way to plead the case and change the way the world can work for the neglected. Leder keeps the pacing on a steady track despite the lurches forward in time via the first-time feature screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman. He makes a formidable “Justice-for-all League” of Ruth, Martin, Jane, and Mel while Griswald and his cronies are reduced to “hand-wringing” members of the “Legion of Doom” (“I, Lex Luthor, propose we stop Mrs. Ginsberg! What say you, Bizarro?” “Me am like Mrs. Ginsberg!”). And sometimes the period inequities are hammered home with little subtlety (just how many servers of color did the Griswalds hire for the event). Kudos though to the production team for excellent recreations of the late 50’s and early ’70s, from fashions to furnishings to Mrs. G’s flattering hairstyles (and always with great gloves). Despite the story simplifications, this is a tale that truly resonates with the headlines. Its ending is an invigorating “call to arms” that should inspire audiences of all ages, though this would make for an excellent “AV Day” for any high school and college history classes. ON THE BASIS OF SEX is a terrific, engaging, and well-acted “infotainment”. Movie-court is adjourned!
3.5 Out of 5
ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas