On the Basis of Sex and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Mimi Leder
Wait, didn’t we get this movie last year? Oh right! That was a documentary! Well I guess since we got that we need a fictionalized version of the story to make a double feature out of, but at the very least this IS an individual whose story is worth getting the BIG HOLLYWOOD treatment and it’s not like we couldn’t use a GOOD biopic to balance the scales after last year’s big mistake. Look, it was a pretty rough start to the year and the movies haven’t been doing much for me, so maybe the inspirational story of one of America’s most celebrated judicial figures could help me get out of this poor mood! Or it could be another disappointment in a year that seems all too willing to hand those out left and right; especially since this was originally screened in 2018 but got pushed back into the 2109 dead zone for the rest of us. In any case, let’s find out!!
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) has had to deal with quite a lot in her life! She managed to go to Harvard at a time when few women were able to, and got her law degree there as well as at Columbia; all the while taking care of her daughter as well as her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) who had some serious health issues while they were in school. It was all worth it though because now they both have their law degrees and they can live out their dreams of being lawyers! At least that’s the plan as Ruth, who managed to navigate the harsh male dominated world of academia, still hasn’t managed to land a job in the harsh male dominated world of law firms. Oh well. At least she got a teaching job which she excelled at for quite a few years, but one day Martin comes across a case that may just be the one the two of them have been looking for. You see, they became lawyers because they wanted to do good in this world and fight for equality, and one of the things that has always a bugbear of theirs is how Men and Women are defined differently under the law and are therefore treated differently like in regards to workers’ rights and inherence. The case that Martin found though is an instance where the laws negatively affect a man because Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) cannot claim a tax credit despite meeting all the qualifications for it… except for the fact that he is a male bachelor. I know, it sounds UTTERLY RIVETING to hear people talk about tax laws, but this is the kind of thing that can really take a pickaxe to the existing status quo and a ruling in Charles’s favor could be the rallying point for other similar laws to be overturned! With the case of a lifetime in their laps, the Ginsburgs begin to work the case with the help of the ACLU run by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) as well as a personal hero of Ruth’s Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) who’s resistant at first due to a lifetime of learned cynicism, but might just be willing to give them the push they need to be taken seriously. Can Ruth and Martin successfully overturn this law and get Charles that sought after tax credit? What kind of resistance will they face from the government that has a vested interest in keeping things the way they are? FOOLISH MORTALS! NO ONE CAN STOP THE RBG!!
I thought it was pretty good! Look, considering how 2019 has been going so far, both in terms of the movies I’ve seen and the general state of the world around us, I’m in the mood for a crowd pleaser like this which tackles important issues, shows a bit of history that many of us may not have the full grasp of, and feels very much like the right movie for the right time. Maybe that means that it has a limited shelf life, and there are certainly aspects of it that feel overtly sugarcoated in a way that will eventually be called out if they haven’t been already, but it’s been a month of, a year, an eternity, of rough patches and illnesses for me, so I’ll take this opportunity to enjoy a film that has its heart in the right place!
What this movie gets right is setting a darn good tone and presenting these struggles in a way that is relatable but not deflating. Okay, I’m saying that as a guy which means I can’t speak for anyone who HAS faced these kind of barriers or how certain scenes will play out for them, but as someone who TRIES to be aware of what’s going on and the issues that many people face (mostly from people who look just like me), I think it did a good job of getting the point across. The film is basically a series of micro (and not so micro) aggressions that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has to face throughout her education as well as the early years of her career; all of which are obvious to even the most casual and uninformed viewer which for all I know was how obvious things were at that time, but it feels almost like she’s up against super villains who would twirl their mustaches if they could. When we get to the Justice Department which is the side defending the law Ruth is challenging, the colors are suddenly a lot more muted, no one remembered to turn on the light switch so everything in the room is lit through slatted blinds, and if that wasn’t enough, EVERYONE IS SMOKING!! It’s not the least bit subtle of how it wants you to feel in any given scene, but I personally I liked the broad strokes style of storytelling they use here which sets up the good guys, the bad guys, and the trouble our hero will have in overcoming them, and it certainly feels real enough to what we see all the time; basically men constantly feeling threatened by women and going to absurd lengths to fight of any challenge to the status quo.
The other thing that this movie gets, and one of the many reasons it’s SO much better than the OTHER big biopic that everyone is talking about instead of this one (though mostly in negative terms admittedly), is that it gets the point of telling someone’s story which is not to make a half-hearted documentary but to tell us WHY the subject matter is important. We don’t go over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s entire life which is good because trying to cram all of that into one movie would have diluted the important events of her life. Instead, the movie focuses on some of her early years before getting to a very important case that she fought for which is the meat of the story as well as where we learn the most about her. We don’t see her become a judge or get confirmed to the Supreme Court. We don’t see any cases t she’s heard in her tenure there or about any of the decisions that she was a part of; all of which would have been interesting to see but certainly wouldn’t have worked in two hours, like say… trying to fit all of Queen’s story in a clichéd rise and fall narrative without even touching on Flash Gordon! Now wouldn’t THAT be a terrible idea!? I had never heard of this case, or any of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cases to be honest, but it’s kinda shocking how relevant that story still is as it has to do with prescribed gender roles in society and the legal and social barriers in place to those who wish to, at least in some way, live outside of them. Charles Moritz didn’t even seem to be aware that there were these expectations upon him until he was denied this tax credit and it’s a good example of just how much behavior is policed for everyone; even those who hold the most power in society. Nowadays, we have the internet to continue that policy of policing men, women, and everyone else’s behaviors, even under the ironic moniker of protecting “men’s rights” which I’d call both a condemnation of modern society as well as a point in this film’s favor for being relevant.
Now as much as I can praise about this movie, it’s also one that I can see other people not liking. For all the things I DID like about it such as the tight focus, the no nonsense framing, and the clearly stated GIRL POWER optimism, those things are ultimately rather shallow and that fact alone can (understandably) turn plenty of people off. I’m far from an expert in a lot of these areas, but the feminism in this movie is presented very much from a white, straight, cis perspective. It somewhat touches on race in that she has to find a way to adequately answer the question if differences between white and black is the equivalent of male and female (at least in regards to the law), and a few of her students at the university are women of color, but for the most part it’s focused on her and a rather generic (i.e. defaulted cis, straight, and white) version of feminism. Now sure, the case itself was in regards to a law that only separated people by male and female (without any language to interpret what that means), but everything else around feels perhaps a bit TOO narrowly focused appeal to everyone. Also, the rose tinted nature of much of it, while pretty fun, does feel disingenuous at points. I couldn’t tell you what Martin Ginsburg was like in real life, but OH MY GOSH in this movie he is the greatest person ever!! He’s super supportive, he’s great with the kids, he loves Ruth, and he even wears an apron because he’s so secure in his masculinity! MAYBE the real Martin Ginsburg was like this back in the early seventies and I’m too cynical to believe a man was THAT perfect back then (or even now), but along with everything else it does make the authenticity of the film feel a bit suspect.
What the movie excels at is being a straightforward and cathartic crowd pleaser which I do think has its place, but MAYBE not to this degree in something that’s supposed to be based on true events. It bothered me to the extent that I could see what it was doing very clearly, but I didn’t really OBJECT to the film going that far into unambiguous empowerment even if it could have done it with a more delicate and thoughtful touch. The movie we’ve got though is still one that I very much recommend, and I think that, while it’s not THE most important film we’ve gotten recently or will get in the foreseeable future, it’s another solid entry in films that are socially conscious of the times we are living in and try to give us hope that things MIGHT one day be okay. MAYBE see it in theaters if you think its uncomplicated approach towards its subject matter is something you can get into for two hours, but you should check it out at some point even if you don’t want to make the trip to the theater. Heck, you’ve got plenty of movies to catch up on in the meantime! Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, even that Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary! This one will still be around once you get through those!