At what point did 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replace Chuck Norris as the nation’s reigning badass?
Dubbed the “Notorious RBG” and embodied in Kate McKinnon’s dance moves on “Saturday Night Live,” Ginsburg’s tiny image was transformed into action figures and defiant internet memes — an unlikely cultural icon.
Earlier this year, a strong documentary profile, “RBG,” became a bona fide box-office hit. Now comes “On the Basis of Sex,” a dramatic feature that focuses on one of Ginsburg’s most significant cases, argued long before she was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Before we get to that, there’s an origin story, as always in a movie about an indestructible superhero. We open as Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) begins class at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, where the dean (Sam Waterston) bluntly asks the handful of female students how they can justify taking roster spots from men.
We see Ginsburg’s romance with husband Marty (Armie Hammer, recently the monstrous business mogul in “Sorry to Bother You”), a genuinely complementary relationship keyed to their different personalities: He’s expansive and outgoing, she’s introspective and studious.
Astonishingly studious: Ginsburg takes Marty’s school workload on her back when he’s diagnosed with cancer. Elsewhere, we see her worn down by sexism, which relegated her to teaching when she probably should’ve been snapped up by a big New York law firm.
Then we skip ahead to the case. It’s a fascinating one, as Ginsburg realizes that by arguing in favor of a man (a touching Chris Mulkey) denied caregiving benefits for the sole reason of being male, she can prove that dozens of U.S. laws are inherently unfair on the basis of sex — most of them against women.
Veteran director Mimi Leder guides the early scenes with great skill, although I could’ve lived without knowing how the Ginsburgs initiated foreplay — for a while you wonder whether this movie is going to live up to its title in more ways than one.
Lively supporting performances from Justin Theroux (as ACLU chief Mel Wulf) and Kathy Bates (as feminist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon) keep things going. British actress Felicity Jones (Oscar-nominated for “The Theory of Everything”) is a little colorless as Ginsburg, but you can’t really blame her; when the protagonist is presented as near-saintly, it’s a little difficult to give shading to the conception.
The sex-discrimination case is full of gnarly legal details. It’s too bad the movie paints the opposing lawyers as such single-note chauvinist pigs in order to pump up the drama, because the case itself is engrossing.
“On the Basis of Sex” feels committee-made, which makes it well-constructed but rather bland. Check out the “RBG” documentary for a more detailed account of an impressive, if not notorious, American life.
“On the Basis of Sex” (3 stars)
Scenes from the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), the future Supreme Court justice and unlikely badass icon. There’s an origin story about Ginsburg’s experience at sexist Harvard Law School, then an engrossing account of a 1970s sex-discrimination case. The movie’s got a committee-made feel, so it’s a little bland even while it tells of a fascinating American life. With Armie Hammer.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter