Review: 'On the Basis of Sex' plays by rules

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's early years unfold in this by-the-numbers biopic

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

As a trailblazing figure, Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves a knockout biopic about her life. 

Instead she gets "On the Basis of Sex," a serviceable, but by no means extraordinary origin story of a pre-Supreme Court RBG as she begins to shape her legacy.   

Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux and Felicity Jones in "On the Basis of Sex."

Felicity Jones ("Star Wars: Rogue One") plays Ginsburg, her thick Brooklyn accent providing a hurdle the British actress doesn't always clear. But elsewhere Jones captures RBG's inner fire, as she challenges societal norms and enacts radical social change while, uh, arguing tax law.

Sure, tax law isn't the most sexy cinematic subject, and director Mimi Leder ("The Peacemaker") is limited by a script that largely unfolds inside courtrooms. Legal settings are a necessary evil when the subject is law, of course, but it's been a long time since a courtroom scene has really popped on screen, and they don't here.   

Outside the court, we first meet Ginsburg as a young law student at Harvard, where she's one of just a few females in a sea of males. School leaders are painted as broad, sexist figures, challenging the females to justify why they're worthy of seats that could have gone to men. The audience knows better, and "On the Basis of Sex" is happy to play down to viewers to get them on its side.  

Armie Hammer plays Martin Ginsburg, Ruth's husband, whose classes she attends — in addition to her own — when he's diagnosed with testicular cancer. She was always a rock star, see, it was just a matter of finding the right stage to play her solo. 

That turns out to be the case of a Colorado caregiver, who was denied a tax deduction for looking after his elderly mother. The law stated he wasn't eligible because only women were classified as caregivers, and Ginsburg sees the law as a way to topple discrimination across the board. Cue the "Rocky" theme.

There is no "Rocky" theme, although "On the Basis of Sex" uses the same underdog elements to tell Ginsburg's story, using the courtroom as its boxing ring.

And while it never truly catches fire — it's no oversight that the film has been an awards season non-starter — "On the Basis of Sex" does a swell job of paying tribute to its legendary subject (who was also profiled in the hit 2018 documentary "RBG"). 

Ginsburg, who has been in the news lately due to her recent health scare, makes a cameo late in the film. It's a heroic moment in a film that mostly sticks to the rules, which is odd, since it's something Ginsburg has never done.


'On the Basis of Sex'


Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content

Running time: 120 minutes