Superhero aura hangs over Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Felicity Jones doesn’t quite bring her to life.

Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features/AP
Felicity Jones stars in 'On the Basis of Sex.'

Coming after “RBG,” the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Judge Ginsburg, seems oddly inauthentic. It’s not just that the new movie features actors playing real people. It’s also that it conventionalizes a radically unconventional life. She comes across as a cardboard icon.

The movie begins with Ginsburg’s beginnings at Harvard Law School in 1956, when she was already married to fellow Harvard Law student Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and raising a child. As only one of nine women in a class of about 500, she glaringly stands out, even more so – though the movie doesn’t make a point of it – because she is Jewish. Expected to be the dutiful wife at faculty and student gatherings, she chafes in public, mostly silently, at the indignities. In private, she lets loose. Marty is portrayed (as he was in “RBG”) as the perfect helpmate who supports his wife’s career every inch of the way. He even changes the diapers and does the dishes!

When Marty is diagnosed with cancer, she audits his classes for him, taking notes, and eventually transfers to Columbia Law School to be with him in New York. (Marty recuperated and became a top New York tax attorney.) Although she graduates at the top of her class, she is turned down by a succession of law firms, all of which are skittish about hiring a woman, and becomes a law professor at Rutgers.

Since a hallowed aura hangs heavy over this movie, these early scenes – as well as the bulk of those which follow, leading up to her landmark gender discrimination victory in 1972 in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals – resemble those Marvel movies where we discover how Spider-Man became Spider-Man or Thor became Thor. 

I’m being flippant, and certainly the unexcitingly filmed “On the Basis of Sex” would never be confused with the bam-pow stylistics of franchise superhero fare. But all along the way, we are invited by the filmmakers to regard Ginsburg as a saint in the making who also happens to be a real person. It’s the kind of “tribute” that is actually a disservice because it flattens out a complex human being. (To a lesser extent, “RBG” was also hero-worshippy.) Some of this haloed treatment may be because Ginsburg, who makes a very brief appearance as herself at the end of the film, was reportedly very much involved in the movie, supplying various script notes and securing cast approval over the two lead actors. Not to mention that Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, wrote the screenplay.

The casting of Jones as Ginsburg might have seemed like a good idea, but, as fine an actress as she is, she can’t quite manage to bring the future Supreme Court justice to life, perhaps because it’s tough to animate cardboard. She’s stiff and humorless. One could argue, I suppose, that the portrayal of Ginsburg had to be this way in order to legitimize the seriousness of her concerns, but in the movie, her nonstop cheerlessness is a drag. Only when she is paired with her feisty, feminist daughter, Jane (a good Cailee Spaeny), do we spy some chinks in the armor. Otherwise she is fully suited up in sanctity. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content.)

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