Every year it seems, Hollywood races out historical docudrama meant to be a rallying cry to remind or influence Americans about a current political topic.
Last year, Steven Spielberg rushed through a good, not great feature on The Washington Post’s work on the Pentagon Papers as a defense for freedom of the press amid rampant allegations of “fake news.”
That film, “The Post,” felt incomplete, rushed to theaters in time for the 2018 Oscars at the expense of quality storytelling.
Director Mimi Leder leads the charge this year with a middling, unexceptional biopic of stalwart Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that drives home equality for all under the law, but with a lack of relentlessness or passion that Ginsburg has been known for.
“On The Basis Of Sex” covers about 15 years of Ginsburg’s life, beginning with her first year at Harvard Law balancing school work, an infant daughter and a husband with testicular cancer and continuing on through her work in the early 1970s seeking equal protection rights for women.
Leder approaches her subject matter with a paint-by-numbers approach that afflicts a growing plurality of biopic films. It’s one thing to continue the lineage of a tried and true genre; it’s another thing altogether to blandly unoriginal.
This isn’t to say that “On The Basis Of Sex” is completely without merit. The acting is solid across the board and occasionally exceptional.
As Ginsburg, Academy Award nominee Felicity Jones is more than capable of rallying audiences to the future Supreme Court justice’s cause in spite of a rather bland and often legally technical screenplay.
She conveys the all-consuming vigor Ginsburg has for the law and balances it with compassion for her family and the clients she serves.
Kathy Bates works wonders in little screen time as pioneering lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and Cailee Spaeny is exceptional in a secondary role as Ginsburg’s free-spirited daughter Jane.
The men of the film, however, are more of a mixed bag.
Armie Hammer shows solid chemistry opposite Jones as Ginsburg’s husband Martin and their relationship of equals satisfyingly serves as a metaphor for the equal rights for men and women they strive to achieve in the film.
Justin Theroux gives a marginal performance as over-antagonizing ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf while “Law and Order” vet Sam Waterston is reduced to a mustache-twirling, simple misogynist as the Harvard Law School dean turned U.S. Solicitor General Erwin Griswold.
For a film designed to celebrate an icon of American jurisprudence and the women’s rights movement, “On The Basis Of Sex” is aggressively mediocre.
In the film, Ginsburg states her assertion that “changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change.”
Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman take this to heart in their filmmaking, resulting in a feature that fails to properly contextualize the women’s movement often referenced in dialogue but rarely shown on screen.
Jane attends a Gloria Steinem rally and Ruth walks through a similar protest at Rutgers, but these events feel so superfluous to the film that it marginalizes their importance.
A fringe Oscar contender at best, it’s increasingly likely that “On The Basis of Sex” is shut out of awards season contention, though a Best Actress nomination for Jones isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility either.
In all likelihood, the CNN Films documentary “RBG” will be the only Ginsburg movie this year to receive acclaim and serves as a wonderful film to pair with a screening of “On The Basis Of Sex.”
Ginsburg’s life is exceptional and the film does a moderately capable job of inspiring audiences on their way out the door.
“On The Basis Of Sex” is a perfectly fine film that viewers shouldn’t go out of their way to see, but will enjoy at their convenience either on the big screen or at home months from now.