In a season of biographical dramas about real 20th century figures, “On the Basis of Sex” has one advantage over the competition: It seems to have been made by people who actually like and appreciate the person being profiled.
Considering we’ve had biopics that were dominated by survivor score-settling (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), atrocious white-washing (“Green Book”) and outright hatred of the subject (“Vice”), seeing a straightforward and hero-building movie about a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg is something of a relief.
Like “Green Book,” “On the Basis of Sex” is filtered through the memories of a screenwriting relative, in this case Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. His script focuses on Bader Ginsburg’s life at two crucial junctures: Her law school days in the late 1950s, and the early 1970s, when she was a law professor and litigator for the ACLU.
In the early section, we see Ruth (played by Felicity Jones) entering Harvard as an eager first-year law student. As a woman, she is ignored by professors or dismissed by them; at a dinner party, the dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), has each female student stand and explain “why they are taking a space that could have been given to a man.”
At home, Ruth is shown as a young mother, and a loving wife to Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who is a year ahead of her in school. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth also becomes his at-home caregiver and transcribes his law homework alongside her own. When Marty gets a job with a New York law firm, Ruth must transfer to Columbia when Griswold refuses to let her finish her Harvard studies remotely.
Cut to the 1970s, after Ruth has tried and failed to land a job at a New York firm. She finds work teaching law at Rutgers, across the river in New Jersey. She launches a class about gender discrimination in the law, teaching young women who are fighting the same battles against sexism that she did.
The drama in Stiepleman’s script comes when Ruth teams up with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), an old friend who’s a lawyer for the ACLU. Ruth pushes Mel to take on a gender-discrimination case, where a man (Chris Mulkey) was denied a tax break for becoming a caregiver for his ailing mother — a tax break then reserved only for women.
Ruth’s plan is to show the appeals court judges in Denver that gender discrimination can negatively affect men, too. The government’s team arguing against her is led by the solicitor general: None other than her old Harvard dean, Griswold. (Griswold actually served both roles in his life, though he comes off feeling like a composite character in this story.)
Director Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact,” “Pay It Forward” and a ton of TV) focuses on Ruth’s tentative demeanor preparing for her big moment before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. She frequently is subjected to blowhard males — Griswold and Wolf, primarily — and is shown as wavering and vulnerable, nearly ready to throw in the towel, before steeling herself for the battle.
Such a depiction may be at odds with the iron disposition we’ve come to know from Ruth Bader Ginsburg — notably in last year’s documentary “RBG” — but it gives actors like Jones and Hammer more to work with. They give solid performances, and have a tender chemistry together, but nothing so spectacular that they transcend the contours of a standard-issue biography. (True to biopic form, Hammer is infinitely better looking, and possesses a better head of hair, than the real Marty Ginsburg, as anyone who saw “RBG” can attest.)
At the screening I attended, it was quite telling that the only time the audience came close to cheering wasn’t when Jones’ Ruth finished her case, but when the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared onscreen for about five seconds. “On the Basis of Sex” has the feel of a crowd-pleaser, though it relies heavily on the goodwill fans already share for RBG’s tenacity and genius.
‘On the Basis of Sex’
Opened December 25 in select cities; opens Friday, January 11, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content. Running time: 120 minutes.