With a chintzy score and foggy camerawork, On the Basis of Sex starts out shakily with an unimpressive, made-for-TV sheen and never recovers from there. A paint by numbers biopic, there is nothing in this broad strokes look at the early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that ever surprises or even really engages. An underpowered hagiography (written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman), it just about skates by on the inherent power of its central figure, but the primary sensation it leaves you with is one of bored frustration.
We first meet Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) in 1954, starting out as one of only nine women at Harvard law school and facing the sexism you would expect. Pretty soon, though, we flash forward to 1970, as Ruth and her supportive husband Marty (Armie Hammer) take on a gender-discriminatory tax case that will eventually open up the US legal system to resounding reform. Stiepleman’s script is painfully rote, and Mimi Leder’s plodding direction (a far cry from her fantastic TV work) hardly elevates it. Everything, from arguments between Ruth and her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny in a horribly underwritten role) to a ‘surprise’ acceptance of the case by previously reluctant ACLU head Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), happens in the most eye-rollingly predictable way possible.
On the Basis of Sex keeps skirting around more interesting stories, while taking far too much time to tell its own. The pace is glacial, feeling a stretch longer than its two hour runtime. A cameo by Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon, still hopeful but with a guard of cynicism thanks to years of misogynistic defeats, hints at some additional spark, but this promise is swiftly dropped. The whole thing looks very cheap as well, ‘70s New York and Washington rendered without any depth or richness to give a sense of time and place.
Jones is decent in the lead, but struggles with a slipshod accent (a trend that carries over to co-star Jack Reynor, as an antagonistic litigator, whose Irish brogue slips through constantly), while Hammer is perfectly serviceable in a shallow role that offers little challenge. At a fundamental level, On the Basis of Sex just feels lazy, the epitome of ‘this’ll do’ awards-bait filmmaking, all the way up to its unbelievably tacky final shot.