CREDIT: Focus Features

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates

Director: Mimi Leder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Occasionally Offensive Language of the Law

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

It is slightly disorienting to have both a documentary and a based-on-true-life narrative film about the same living person open in one year. But for certain subjects, there is value be to had in exploring familiar territory via multiple formats. For someone as influential as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her increased level of media attention has not diluted her potential for cinematic inspiration. On the Basis of Sex, Mimi Leder’s portrait of a young and hungry Ginsburg, wisely focuses on one chapter in her legal journey. And when it missteps, it is not because it retreads the same territory that RBG already covered sufficiently.

The focus is on the 1970 case of Charles Moritz, a never-married bachelor caring for his sick mother who is denied a caregiver tax deduction because at the time it was available only to women, widowers, and divorcees. Ginsburg, who was then a law professor at Rutgers, teams up with the ACLU to take on Martin’s case, and in addition to representing this one man, they set out to demonstrate how so much of the U.S. legal code discriminates (as the title says) “on the basis of sex,” and how that harms both women and men. That could be cinematic overreach, except for the fact that the real Ginsburg has very much committed her career to making the law more equitable.

On the Basis of Sex works best when it focuses on the truths of relationships, and there is plenty of material to be mined within the Ginsburg household. Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), here seen as a fast-rising tax lawyer, are equal partners, though not without their disagreements (like any marriage). But what makes their tension bearable, or even admirable, is that it is based on a shared desire to fight for what is right. Ruth’s relationship with her teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), however, is much more explosive, in the way that mother-daughter relationships often are at that age. You kind of want Jane to cut her mom some slack, because she is Ruth Bader Ginsburg after all. But sometimes kids can be their parents’ toughest critics, sometimes unfairly, sometimes rewardingly, or both in this case. There are a few moments that reek of over-inspirational biopic excess, like Ruth suddenly becoming struck with inspiration in the middle of a rainstorm. But for the most part, On the Basis of Sex knows how to capture the fight for justice and its beating human heart.

On the Basis of Sex is Recommended If You Like: Inspirational clichés, To Kill a Mockingbird, Legally Blonde

Grade: 3 out of 5 Closing Statements

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