‘On the Basis of Sex’ Review: As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Felicity Jones Does Her Best in an Old-Fashioned Soap Opera

IndieWire | 11/9/2018 | Staff
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With few modifications, “On the Basis of Sex” could have been made 30 years ago, and its rousing portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be a cheesy tearjerker with purpose. Today, it’s out of touch. Like the breakout summer documentary “RBG,” director Mimi Leder’s upbeat tribute is an admirable salute to one woman’s determination against a sexist world, but the non-fiction treatment is forced into heavy-handed dramaturgy and becomes an antiquated soap opera.

The justice’s inspiring legal trajectory, as the pioneering women’s rights lawyer who challenged gender discrimination laws and eventually overturned them in a series of aggressive cases, has inspired generations. Unfortunately, released at the most divisive moments in American politics — a matter of weeks after the Supreme Court became a flashpoint for national outrage, and its longstanding commitment to nonpartisanship went kaput — “On the Basis of Sex” plays like a sunny fantasy from a more optimistic age.

Performance - Felicity - Jones - Leder - Maudlin

Despite a formidable performance by Felicity Jones, Leder’s maudlin approach is further hobbled by Daniel Stiepleman’s blunt screenplay, which takes Ginsburg’s imminent success for granted with an annoying wink-wink approach that underserves the value of her legacy. As concerns about the 85-year-old Ginsburg’s longevity linger on a court where liberal justices have been relegated to a minority, Leder’s movie arrives with an unspoken and inadvertent aura of fear.

Still, if you’re just getting up to speed on why Ginsburg matters — then and now, with a terrifying future on the horizon — “On the Basis of Sex” does a serviceable job of consolidating the earlier chapters. The movie opens on the steps of Harvard in the early 1950s, when Ginsbeurg entered law school as one of only a handful of women in her class. Discrimination comes at her from every angle, from the moment young Ginsburg takes her seat...
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