[Screen It]

"ON THE BASIS OF SEX"
(2018) (Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A young woman must deal with misogyny and more as she attempts to become a lawyer and begin to put an end to discrimination based on one's gender.
PLOT:
It's 1956 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (FELICITY JONES) is one of a handful of women attending Harvard Law School where her husband, Marty (ARMIE HAMMER), is one year ahead of her. Despite her being smart and ambitious she must contend with the various male authority figures there -- including Dean Erwin Griswold (SAM WATERSTON) and Professor Brown (STEPHEN ROOT) -- being dismissive of her when not otherwise acting in demeaning and misogynistic ways. Not only that, but she must also contend with Marty being diagnosed with testicular cancer, all while caring for their young daughter, Jane.

She later graduates from Columbia, but finds it difficult getting a job as a lawyer and ends up teaching at Rutgers Law School, all while contending with now 15-year-old Jane (CAILEE SPAENY) being a rebellious teenager. But Ruth gets her big break when Marty informs her of a tax law issue involving Charles Moritz (CHRIS MULKEY), a never-married man who tried to take a caregiver tax deduction for the help he hired to care for his ailing mother, but was denied due to being a man.

Realizing she could use that discrimination based on gender case as a stepping stone to help women facing their own gender-based discrimination, she enlists the aid of Mel Wulf (JUSTIN THEROUX), legal director of the ACLU, to help in representing Charles. From that point on, she begins researching all matters related to the case, all while continuing to contend with men in power not taking her seriously.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
In my review of "Vice," I pointed out the importance of a performer's portrayal of any real-life person they're playing. If one isn't going for caricature, then said role playing has to be more than, oh I don't know, sixty percent accurate to make viewers believe they're watching the well-known person just enough to suspend disbelief and then go along for whatever ride they're being offered.

But there's also the matter of how much of that person's life a filmmaker should include. Of course, if one's making a mini-series, there's plenty of time to cover childhood (and whatever forces molded them into who they'd become) through adulthood (and sometimes death), hitting all of the highs, lows and maybe even the material between those.

When a film is only around two hours long, however, writers and directors have to choose whether to try to cram in everything (and thus risk coming off as rushed and/or superficial) or focus on one or two major moments (following some introductory material). There's no right or wrong answer, but whichever choice is made needs to work well enough to inform and hopefully entertain viewers to one degree or another.

In "On The Basis of Sex," screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman and director Mimi Leder have opted to take the one big moment in telling their tale of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Something of a part-truth, part-fictitious companion piece to the documentary "RGB," the film begins by showing us the young lawyer wannabe (played by Felicity Jones) walking among a sea of males as she enters Harvard Law School.

She and we quickly learn it's going to be an uphill battle, what with one professor (Stephen Root) ignoring her raised hand to select a male student instead, while the Dean (Sam Waterston) is outright misogynistic toward the handful of women there, openly questioning why they're taking the spots that could and should have gone to men rather than them.

Thankfully, not all of the men are like that, and she gets her greatest support from her husband and fellow law school student, Marty (Armie Hammer), whose education (and life) nearly get derailed by testicular cancer. The film then shows what a tough and resourceful cookie Ruth is by depicting her attending both her and his classes (something which didn't happen in real life), but that's not enough to land her a job after she graduates (from Columbia Law) and realizes no one wants a female lawyer.

While working in her backup job as a professor, a case falls into her lap (or, more accurately, is given to her by her husband) about a man (Chris Mulkey) who was denied a caregiver tax deduction simply because he's a man and that law was designed for women. Smelling an opportunity to exploit that in the easier "man was discriminated against" case rather than the harder to sell one regarding women, Ruth is all over the ruling and preps to kill two legal birds with one stone.

And with the help of her husband and the legal director of the ACLU (Justin Theroux) -- and a brief visit to a former women's rights pioneer (Kathy Bates -- who's only in two scenes, but points out that the future of such matters belongs to young women like Ruth's 15-year-old daughter, played by Cailee Spaeny) -- Ruth fights an uphill battle to score an important victory when it come to discrimination on the basis of gender.

Not being familiar with the real Ginsburg at that age, I can't say whether Jones gives a completely accurate portrayal of the lawyer, but she seems to get the persona just right, even if it's done in the sort of not-terribly-subtle way that usually entertains the masses but sometimes drives persnickety film critics nuts. I happened to like it along with the rest of the performances and overall storyline and didn't find any part grating or distracting.

While it certainly doesn't begin to cover the entirety of the woman's life and career, it does portray the beginning of that and hints at what's to come. And for that, "On the Basis of Sex" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed November 28, 2018 / Posted December 25, 2018


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