On the Basis of Sex's slightly racy title fronts a just-pretty-OK cinematic experience that coasts on the awesomeness of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Imight wish that Sex was, well, sexier—more adventurous, more meaty, more demanding of the viewer and of its terrific cast—but I'll take this.Coasting on Notorious RBG is some incredible coasting indeed, and the ride here is of the solidly crowd-pleasing variety. There's nothing wrong withthat.
Ginsburg, of course, is now a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but in the years where this movie is set—from the 1950s through the 1970s—she is a young lawstudent, a university professor and ultimately, once she finds her groove, an activist for gender equality. Her story—written for the screen by her nephew, DanielStiepleman, and directed by Mimi Leder—is a familiar David-and-Goliath tale of a dogged outsider battling her way into an entrenched, rigidlyconservative system that doesn't want her. The wonderful Felicity Jones is smartly turned out as the young Ruth; she's already married tofellow Harvard law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) as the movie opens. Obscene sexism is the rule at 1950s Harvard Law, where the dean,Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), stubbornly continues to talk about "Harvard men" even though there are, in fact, a few women in Ruth'sincoming class.
Griswold's—and America's, and the world's—casual misogyny is the villain here, and with Griswold's face, will rear its ugly head again in Ruth's career. The gender-discrimination case she will later shepherd toward the Supreme Court is, Griswold will fret, a threat to "the Americanfamily." It's easy to cheer against the outright, blatant, in-her-face bigotry that RBG faces, and to applaud Jones's chin-in-the-air defiance inthe face of it. A little too easy, maybe: I'm frankly a bit tired of movies about sexism that cast battles such as the ones Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought asremnants of the past, as if such matters have been resolved and we're all equal today.
Still, On the Basis of Sex has me clinging to the joy of seeing yet another instance of the gender-flipping of a familiar story, resulting in a gratifyingbusting of clichés. There is intense feminist satisfaction to be found here in the depiction of the Ginsburgs' marriage. Whatever dramatic licenseStiepleman might have taken in telling his aunt's story does not extend to the reality—portrayed here with romantic yet also practical sweetness—ofMarty as incredibly supportive of Ruth's career, and of her life on the whole. Gently amusing scenes of domesticity here include Marty cooking dinner soRuth can practice her lawyerly oratory in preparation for appearing before the Supreme Court. I'll venture to guess that few people would say thatArmie Hammer bustling around the kitchen isn't sexy as hell.
Ruth had, we see, previously supported Marty through a life-threatening bout with cancer in their law-school days, but there's no sense that this is a tit-for-tatarrangement. The case that brings her to prominence—the one that allows her a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-esque scene of speechifyingconquest!—is one that he brings to her attention, one in which gender intersects with his professional wheelhouse of tax law. Marty is simply behind Ruth100 percent, and a portrait of a heterosexual couple that focuses on the woman is in itself remarkable. Toss in the fact that both partners sharehousehold duties without fuss or argument and give emotional and physical room for each other's work, and it's nigh unprecedented.
We're so used to seeing movies about men doing important work whose onscreen wives are quiet helpmeets, or sometimes women slightly perplexed bytheir husbands who eventually come around to being quiet helpmeets. It's difficult to come up with even one example of a wholly supportive husbandcharacter to a wife doing important work. It's so unusual that Stiepleman has said in The New York Times that the movie had trouble attracting financing becauseits Marty was allegedly too implausible in his steadfast encouragement—even though, by all accounts, this onscreen Marty is very true to life. But that's precisely why, howeverotherwise pedestrian On the Basis of Sex might be, we need to see more movies like this one.