Literally one of the first scenes in On the Basis of Sex is a love scene — as though the film wants to remind you that the octogenerian Supreme Court judge fucks. It’s got an odd structure: spending ten minutes profiling her time at Harvard Law School, ten hunting for jobs in New York, and the rest on the tax law case she takes on while a professor — her first as a future women’s rights attorney.
It’s rather procedural in a pleasing way. Once the backstory is done with, anyway. I think the film really wants to impress upon the audience her exceptionalism early. One of the first women to attend one of the most prestigious colleges in the country while caring for a young child. Then her husband, also a studying lawyer, is diagnosed with cancer. You can feel the film telling it like the American liberal it’s made for, ‘then the boss-ass bitch, looked after both, attended both their classes to give him a chance at passing, and still graduated top of her class.’
I didn’t know this. I do know that she’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course she’s going to be impressive. Then consider the scene where she’s looking for work in New York City. The interviewer is confused, she’s impressive, why’s one of the big firms not snapped her up already? This affords her the opportunity for a little rant — well scripted, crowd pleasing, and funny enough — about the indignities of finding employment as a woman. Then the dude proceeds to turn her away anyway. Oh, you included the scene for the monologue, you want us to know that you’re woke.
Sure, the film is woke. It’s just not a particularly revelatory or revolutionary brand of it. Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg as stridentness personified, her voice floating its way around a New York accent. The wrinkle is, that despite the continual arguments she has with her daughter, in the courtroom she’s a poor performer. The brief she’s writing for the case is immaculate, can she get it together before she’s expected to take the floor?
It’s not the most inspired throughline in a film which rather struggles for them. The court case involves a man denied a tax break while acting as the sole carer for his disabled mother, on the assumption that the term ‘carer’ would refer to women or widowers — not the bachelor who here finds himself in the position. Ginsburg asserts that a case of discrimination against a man would be more likely to curry favour with the nation’s judges, to create a precedent that could be used to curb gender based discrimination entirely within the law.
I guess there’s not too many shades of grey to be had in such an uncomplicated case. The men fighting it are bad and sexist, some of the men supporting it are good (but also sexist). The one good man is her husband, who brought the case to her attention and supported her through it as co-councel. He is Armie Hammer, he is a total snack, at one point he makes a right hash out of cutting a stick of celery (but he cooks with alcohol and fire so you know he knows what he’s doing). I’m sure the real life pair had a good relationship, but seriously, why hold it over my head like this?
He’s even a good dad. I’d say the film looked at their parenting troubles, but seriously? What troubles? The climax is a scene where she stands in the rain in tears, exclaiming what a strong and forthright young daughter she has raised, after the daughter shouts down some unconvincing builders on an unconvincing New York city street. Small note, but the set extension is like so bad throughout this film. Even the view out of windows at night is weirdly composited and it’s a window.
It’s almost as about as bad as some of the dialogue. On the whole it’s very clunky, the villainous men (who I don’t think are supposed to sound like actual cartoons) do. Justin Theroux takes a very sweaty turn as he battles through some real repetitive scenes as a recalcitrant ACLU representative. Whoever’s idea it was to make his introduction a solid minute of awkward a capella singing should frankly have had better sense.
It’s hard to talk about because it’s so deliberately slight, director Mimi Leder running through the sorts of quasi Mad Men hits we’ve come to expect. But can celebration of an act substitute for celebration of a life, and is it wise to treat them like the same? The final shot of the film makes it clear that this is the latter, but in that case is it wise to so thoroughly deify our heroes? This is nowhere as heinous as Green Book, but shares a little DNA. It’s written by Ginsburg’s nephew, of course it can’t help itself.
It’s not great, but it’s harmless I suppose. It’ll give liberals something to fixate upon for a while and then forget as they always do. It’ll have even less traction in the UK, which is great, it’s basically escaped my mind already.
Also, look, I know Armie Hammer is like a capitalist and an heir to a big fortune and has kinda routinely been a dick. I know. Please just let me have this one.
On the Basis of Sex is currently screening in UK cinemas.