'On The Basis Of Sex' Review: A Competent Case For Ruth Bader Ginsburg The Icon, But Not The Human Being

There's a scene in almost every teen TV drama where the teacher describes the theme of the episode that will come to pass over the next 45 minutes. The majority of On the Basis of Sex is like that.

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic stars Felicity Jones as the trailblazing lawyer who later becomes one of our foremost Supreme Court justices and only the second female Supreme Court justice in history. But On the Basis of Sex focuses on Ginsburg's first landmark case that launched her career as the premiere advocate against gender discrimination. Which would be fine if that were actually the case. Instead, the first half-hour of the film plays like a checklist of Ginsburg's early life, peppered with winking moments to the time period's retrograde perspective on women. Ruth enters Harvard and shoots to the top of her class: Check. Ruth balances raising a child and caring for a cancer-stricken husband (Armie Hammer) with her studies: Check. Ruth literally does everything her husband Martin does, backwards and in heels, and still gets denied a career as a lawyer: Check.

All throughout her struggles, Ruth maintains her noble disposition and perfectly coiffed hair, simply raising her chin at the injustices with the implied knowledge that she is destined for greater things. For the first half-hour of the film, On the Basis of Sex is too caught up in its label as an important film, breathlessly recounting the life story of an icon of female empowerment while a soaring score briskly carries the story along and fills in its gaps. But if you skip that first half-hour, you may find a powerful and affecting film.

"You're angry," one potential employer tells her during an interview. "That's good, use that." But she's not really angry nor does she really use it. Felicity Jones, for all of her talents, is stuck for most of the film donning a placid expression for much of the movie that I'm going to coin as the "Emma Watson Princess Face": the wide-eyed, gently smiling expression of an actress who knows she's playing a character that holds a certain prominence and will not jeopardize that. On the Basis of Sex attempts a few times to dig under that facade — with her radical feminist daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) picking apart her carefully curated persona. But those brief moments of friction, in which we get a glimpse at Ruth's flaws through her strained relationship with her outspoken daughter, transform into yet another inspirational overture.

We don't see brief moments of humanity peek through until we're well into Ruth's tax law case challenging the IRS' tax deduction for nursing care — a case that Ruth pioneers because it is sex-based discrimination "against a man," with Jones punctuates with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The film finally feels like it begins with the introduction of Justin Theroux's Mel Wulf, an ACLU legal director whose push-pull relationship with Ruth (and in fact, with everyone) provides the most engaging part of this movie — he charmingly greets her with a song-and-dance one moment, then denies her the case the next, encourages her career, then tells her "to smile more." Theroux is a chameleonic character actor here, playing the cad, but a sympathetic one that you can't help but enjoy watching. And oh, when he and Kathy Bates (playing a cantankerous 1st-gen feminist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon) are in a room together trading barbs, the film suddenly lights up. Armie Hammer should be given credit too, for lending his innate charms to nothing role as Ruth's supportive husband Marty.

But on the opposite end, Sam Waterston and Stephen Root are given little to do other than antagonize Ruth and make underhanded sexist comments as her former professors and later, the counsels for the defense in her case. However, it's nice seeing Sing Street's Jack Reynor lend a little more charisma to the sleazy lead counsel role.

The rest of the film plods along until it comes to an empowering crescendo with the final court battle. Why couldn't this have been the entire movie? It's gripping, powerful, and an arena in which the incredibly unsubtle dialogue actually thrives. When a judge jabs at Ruth that the word "woman" isn't in the U.S. Constitution and she responds, "Neither is the word freedom...your honor," it hits so much harder than earlier in the film when Ruth reverentially declares to her daughter, "you are the future." (In the rain! After her daughter chewed out a few catcalling construction workers!) The film hits us over the head with how important its subject matter is, but that doesn't begin to feel real or earned until Ruth enters the courtroom.

The courtroom scene could have made for its own movie for how fully realized it is. Director Mimi Leder crafts an entire arc with rising tension and a final euphoric moment of victory and validation. Ruth enters into the legal battle uncertain of her own abilities and (finally) letting her anger get the better of her when the judges bait her with questions about precedence and the "natural order of the world." She stumbles and nearly loses the case before making a grandiose speech that sent chills down my spine, despite its prominence in the trailers. Jones sells this scene, which benefits from Leder's direction that until now was rather heavy-handed.

The final courtroom scene is strong enough to forgive some of the failings of the first act, which I can't blame Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman for wanting to establish. Ginsburg's story is one that deserves to be told, in a year too where she's been the subject of a documentary that turned her into a modern-day rock star. But On the Basis of Sex is strongest not when it hints at the historical figure she will become, but when it uncovers the fresh and blood woman underneath the notorious "Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10