On the Basis of Sux: Eileen Jones Reviews Hagiopraphopic, Trite Film About RBG


I told a friend of mine that I’d gone to see On the Basis of Sex and she said, while shrieking with laughter and pounding the table, “You did not, YOU DID NOT!”

She reacted this way because the film looks like the worst kind of cornball classic and also because I’ve been somewhat vocal about the mad Ruth Bader Ginsburg cult. It has led to such recent excesses as the nickname “The Notorious RBG,” a weepy online proposal that we all extend Ginsburg’s life by donating to her one day of our own, and a hit documentary film lovingly recording for all eternity Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s daily exercise routine. 

And now this reverent biopic about the young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by fetching British actress Felicity Jones), all about how she overcame cartoonishly evil sexism (represented as scowling Harvard Law baddies played by Sam Waterston and Stephen Root) with the steady support of her angelic tax lawyer husband Martin (Armie Hammer at his Armie Hammerest) in order to walk into history as a crusading feminist challenger of sexist laws.

There are a number of shots showing her walking into history, with the most egregious being the last: Felicity Jones high-heels up the steps of the Supreme Court building in one of her prim blue suits and passes behind a pillar, but coming out the other side is elderly Ruth Bader Ginsberg herself in a prim blue suit with a floral scarf flowing in the slo-mo breeze. This is the audience’s cue to stand up and cheer.

The audience I was in didn’t, but it was an early matinee when energy is low. I was there with family, of course—when you visit family, going to see a movie is the ideal way to spend some time. Two tension-free hours! So I was fine with watching a talented cast struggle to breathe life into the moldiest film conventions, like the one in the courtroom where the judges all realize Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a spunky little comer with the right stuff, and we get big close-ups as their eyes begin to crinkle with appreciative smiles. That was a favorite Frank Capra move in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington way back in 1939, but what’s eighty years among friends? 

The “Capracorn” old Frank created is downright dark and edgy compared to the creampuff cinema we do these days. At least Capra specialized in suicidal characters (Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life) with genuinely big problems sustained over the course of narratives, like poverty, homelessness, lifelong dreams destroyed, cruel disillusionments, hopelessly corrupt politics, capitalism destroying democracy in America, etc. In On the Basis of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s problems evaporate almost as soon as they appear through the magic of cinema created by director Mimi Leder, who apparently wants to make sure no audience member feels anything but the tepid glow of constant affirmation. 

For example, Martin Ginsburg has testicular cancer for about five minutes early in the film. There he is in 1960 or so playing charades with Ruth and friends at a bar. (You read that right. While civilized young people are drinking and socializing in the background, these baffling creeps are playing a full-out game of charades in one corner where all the good couches and chairs are, with Martin trying to convey “Elvis Presley.” In 1960, neither Ruth nor their freakish pals are able to guess for what seems minutes at a time who could be wildly gyrating his hips while singing.) 

Suddenly Martin collapses to the floor. Rushed to hospital. Oh no it’s testicular cancer with only a five percent survival rate! Tears. “I’m going to grow old with YOU, Martin Ginsburg!” says Ruth, and what Ruth says goes in the cosmos. Ruth does Martin’s law student work plus her own while he naps. Cut to years later: Martin is cured. 

But the problem is, there’s so darn much sexism. Ruth can’t get a job at any law firm in New York City, so she takes a plum academic job at Rutgers Law School instead, teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination” to brilliant students of all colors and creeds and backgrounds, raising their hands asking insightful questions all over the place. So frustrating!!! Ruth wants to change the world as a litigator not a teacher! Grrrr!!!

Ruth is so upset she almost frowns at her husband at a fancy law people party where successful Martin holds court. He apologizes for his grotesque insensitivity. Then he tells her about a case they could take on together, about a man (Chris Mulkey) taking care of his ailing mother who was refused “on the basis of sex” the government funding intended only for women caretakers. Whoa! This could be it! Proving discrimination against a man provides a legal precedent for cases proving discrimination against women! This IS it! Sexism solved! Roll credits! The system works!! Yay!!!

I won’t even get into the spunky Ginsburg daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) who grew up in the more radical 1960s-‘70s era and scoffs at her mother’s old-fashioned notions of equality. They have a big fight (meaning not really a big fight, just the mildest spat) about whether Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird was or was not a good lawyer. The daughter is Team Atticus and ultimately wins the fight for some reason I can’t remember because it was so boring. But let’s just say this is the type of movie in which your stand on To Kill a Mockingbird is extremely significant. (And yes I know, it’s been a fairly recent hot topic in the liberals vs. true lefties wars because Jesus Christ what the hell is wrong with us.)

Seriously, Stephen Root is good, though, with his cold pop-eyes and knife-edge voice registering elite scorn of messy outsiders. This is an actors-amuse-themselves kind of movie. Sam Waterston practices his clueless old man squint as the Harvard Law School dean asking the few young women of the incoming class, “Tell us why you’re at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” Justin Theroux knocks himself out trying to juice up the sedate proceedings doing rabid-fire Brooklynite patter as Mel Wulf of the ACLU, and Kathy Bates dons an eccentric hat and a hard-bitten manner to play civil rights activist Daisy Kenyon. 

In case you’re visiting family, let me assure you, these hardy veteran performers will get you through the movie and give you something nice and plausible to say about it afterwards. Yay!! The system works!!!

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Eileen Jones is a film critic at The eXiled Online, and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches in the Rhetoric and Film Departments at the University of California, Berkeley.