Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the subject of one of 2018's most successful and acclaimed documentaries, Betsy West and Julie Cohen's RBG, so a narrative film focused on an important early case that Ginsburg argued might seem a bit redundant. And while On the Basis of Sex details a case that doesn't get its due attention in RBG, both movies are rather superficial, uncomplicated portrayals of their subjects, with upbeat, boosterish tones that don't allow for anything unexpected or unconventional. They even both end with treacly inspirational closing-credits ballads performed by pop stars: In RBG, it's Jennifer Hudson singing "I'll Fight"; in Basis, it's Kesha singing "Here Comes the Change."
At least RBG has the advantage of showcasing the real person. Ginsburg herself shows up at the end of Basis in a painfully heavy-handed cameo, but for the most part she's played by Felicity Jones, sporting an awkward Brooklyn accent and channeling some of the grit and determination she showed in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The movie spends its first half-hour on a bunch of throat-clearing backstory, showing Ruth's early days as one of the only female students at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, her struggles to land a job after graduation, and her mostly happy family life, even as she supports her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) through grueling cancer treatments.
The cancer scenes are especially gratuitous, providing some shameless tear-jerking moments that have little bearing on the main story. The bulk of the narrative takes place more than a decade later, in 1970, when Marty has established himself as a top tax lawyer in New York City and Ruth is a law professor at Rutgers University. There, she teaches students about the emerging field of sex discrimination law, and when Marty discovers a tax case with the potential to reverse decades of court decisions against equality for women, Ruth decides to take it on herself.
As an academic rather than a trial lawyer, she draws on help from the boisterous, supportive Marty, as well as the ACLU's Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who's initially skeptical of adding women's rights to his organization's mission. The conflict between Ruth and Mel is just one area where the film (written by Ginsburg's own nephew, Daniel Stiepleman) manufactures extra drama to add tension to an otherwise straightforward and somewhat dull story. The landmark case, in which a single man caring for his ailing mother was denied a tax deduction available only to women, indeed set the stage for Ginsburg's later courtroom victories for gender equality, but its details aren't particularly compelling. The movie throws some rote obstacles in Ruth's way, all of which are easily cleared in time for her to give a fiery speech as the intrusive, bombastic score swells.
The dialogue is full of expository declarations (the phrase "on the basis of sex" is uttered numerous times), which the actors handle with varying effectiveness, and the direction from journeywoman Mimi Leder is bland and basic, adding to the network-TV-movie feel of the story. Ruth and her allies are fighting such obvious injustice that it's easy to root for them, and Stiepleman and Leder occasionally manage to make tax law surprisingly rousing. The relationship between Ruth and Marty is also quite charming, although the use of their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) as a generational mouthpiece is pretty clumsy.
Ginsburg is (justifiably) a hero to many, and fans of "Notorious R.B.G." memes will probably be suitably hyped-up by this crowd-pleasing movie. It's perfectly adequate as a feel-good rallying cry, even if it's cinematically pedestrian, dramatically forgettable and politically unsophisticated. ♦