Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Based on the trailers we had to watch before “On the Basis of Sex,” I assumed I was in for a long haul. Trailers are usually matched to film—arthouse trailers for arthouse films, etc.—and the seven or eight trailers we suffered through prior to this were some of the godawfulest things I’ve ever seen.
We got that dog reincarnation flick with Dennis Quaid—sorry, the sequel to that. We got a horror flick with Isabelle Hupert as basically Jason. We got another “teens with terminal illness in love” thing. And we got not one but two pedantic Christian movies—“Overcomer” and “Breakthrough”—which is a bit odd considering our biopic subject isn’t, you know, Christian. Imagine if they’d played a trailer for a different Christian movie coming out in 2019: “Roe v. Wade,” a pro-life take on the SCOTUS decision starring every right-wing nut in Hollywood. Don’t imagine the RBG crowd would’ve been too docile for that one.
“On the Basis of Sex” turned out to be better than these trailers—or its trailer—suggested. But RBG still deserves a better biopic.
On the basis of gender
For starters, how about someone Jewish? Or at least someone who can nail a Brooklyn accent? Was Felicity Jones England’s retribution for Kevin Costner? Her accent was mostly nonexistent, and then every half hour it would come in over-the-top: loi-yah.
But that’s not the egregious part. The egregious part is that for the sake of imagined drama, they make their protagonist, one of the great legal minds of my lifetime, a shitty lawyer. They make her someone who is in constant need of pep talks: from her husband, from colleagues, even from her 15-year-old daughter. It would be like a biopic of Willie Mays in which he’s striking out and falling on his ass all the time but manages to get it together to make that catch in the ‘54 Series. You maybe want to remind people that Willie Mays was a little better than that. He was Willie Fucking Mays.
There’s so many false notes here; and they seem false as you‘re watching. Did RBG really run into a brick wall with the ACLU’s legal director Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux) in trying to promote gender equality? Of course not. Is Melvin Wulf Jewish? Of course he is. Is Theroux? Of course not.
I suppose I should also complain that Armie Hammer, as Martin Ginsburg, isn’t Jewish, either, but I like Hammer in this film. Although, good god, try to be a little less gorgeous, buddy. This is the movie where he completely won over my wife. Afterwards, she talked up the look of vulnerability and helplessness in his eyes when he’s stricken with testicular cancer at Harvard Law. When he’s trying to talk RBG down after another 1950s sexist moment, as he's lying across the bed resting his head on his hand, my wife leaned over and whispered, “I have to get you pajamas like that.” “I still won’t look like that in them,” I whispered back.
Anyone else uncomfortable during the boudoir scene? When he takes off her top, and they kiss, and she jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him? I’m like: Dudes, it’s RBG. Yes, your grandparents had sex; you don’t necessarily want to see it dramatized.
One thing that was true? Ginsburg’s secretary suggesting they remove the word “sex” from much of the original brief for Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and replace it with the less provocative word “gender.” Which is a great factoid but kind of undercuts the title, doesn’t it? Since Hollywood went with “sex”? For a change?
I did like that we got a half-hour scene before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. I was so excited when that was going down. Plus I don’t know who cast the three judges but kudos. They looked like judges.
But so much else is so wrong. RBG didn’t have to convince Moritz in a face-to-face trip to Denver to let her take his case pro bono; he agreed by phone. There wasn’t a moot court—and a moot court isn’t a punishment anyway, as the film suggests, but a privilege any attorney trying a big case would leap at. Moreover, if there had been a moot court, she wouldn’t have acted like a deer in headlights, necessitating getting hubby on board for half the oral argument. No, he was already on board for half the oral argument; that was the plan from the start. And I doubt when they were sitting there at the 10th Circuit, trading off like tag-team partners, they wasted long, precious seconds exchanging meaningful glances as argument time ticked down.
Oh, and when she finally finds her voice at the 11th hour and tears well up in her eyes? Remember earlier in the film when all those chauvinists said women were too emotional to be attorneys? So you have RBG tearing up in court? RBG? Who wrote this thing anyway?
Would you believe—her nephew?
Yes. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”), has one writing credit: Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. He admits having RBG freeze in moot court and before the 10th Circuit was Hollywood dramatization. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life,” he says. What goes unanswered is why they, or he, thought her flubbing it for most of the movie was a dramatic necessity. Why not make it like Loki vs. the Hulk? Loki taunts for two seconds and then ... whammo!
According to Stiepleman, when he proposed the screenplay idea to Ginsburg, she had two requests: get the law right and get Marty right. Shame she didn’t add: Get me right, too.