It’s that time of year again, when all the studios are cranking out the films they are hoping will get some awards attention. This is usually the time of year where I’m getting a bit excited, because usually around this time (in theory) some of my favorite films of the year will be released. But a strange thing has happened this year. Though there have been several good films to come out this year, there hasn’t been one that truly separates itself from the pack and I can say “this is the best picture”. Instead this year has been rather lackluster, and with a film like On The Basis of Sex, despite all the talent surrounding the film, lackluster is simply what is delivered to the audience.
Just in case the documentary RBG wasn’t enough Ruth Bader Ginsburg for you, Hollywood has churned out a legal love story just in time for the holidays. Rather than produce another film that spans the career of Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex instead sets its focus on her early years from being a Harvard law student to her taking a case where her client is being denied tax deductions because he is a man. Despite Ginsburg having such a long career in the legal system, it’s a shame the film chooses to focus on such a minimal amount of time with her career. What’s worse is the pacing of the last hour of the film plays out like a boring episode of Law and Order.
The biggest issue I had with the film is the casting of Ginsburg, who is played by Felicity Jones. In no way am I implying that she’s a bad actress; it’s just that there were times that her natural accent seemed to go in and out during the performance, and really my first choice for the role would be Natalie Portman, but there’s no point in thinking about what could have been. Where Felicity Jones does manage to shine in this film is when she is paired alongside Armie Hammer, who plays her husband, Martin Ginsburg. The chemistry between the pair is really one of the saving graces of the film, and it’s a shame the film strays away from their relationship, because really it’s their story that is the most compelling, especially in the first part of the film where we are seeing Ruth having to juggle being a wife, a mother, and a student, all while her husband is struggling with his health and she takes on the load of sitting in on his classes so he doesn’t fall behind.
Daniel Stiepleman takes the screenwriting credit for the film, and because he is related to RBG, the few personal moments between Ruth and Martin feel all the more personal, but it seems to be its demise as well. This is clearly a film that is made to reflect Ginsburg in the most positive fashion and in doing so the film loses its ability to be objective. There is a great moment that could have been when we see Ruth break down in a fit of jealousy having to teach kids who want to change the world when Ruth would rather be the one making the changes. This scene felt the most honest and made the character feel real, but these feelings are not explored any further.
Even more frustrating is how the movie is clearly trying to inspire and motivate its audience and hopefully evoke a cheer; the problem is these moments are not earned. The film wants so badly to be To Kill a Mockingbird or simply any worthwhile courtroom drama, but really its beats are so by-the-numbers, you know how this is going to work out even if you know absolutely nothing about the people involved. There’s no tension, there isn’t a lick of suspense, and when the film gets to Ruth’s empowering speech in front of the senate, well, don’t feel bad if it evokes the sensation to yawn.
At best, this is a movie worth checking out on Netflix, not something to rush out to the theaters and see. The trailers for the film gave me hope, but the end result was a film I’ll most likely forget about in a couple of months. If you are a fan of Ginsburg, I’d suggest stick with checking out RBG and skip out on this one.