December 19, 2018 | ° F

Trailblazing Supreme Court justice hits silver screen


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On Tuesday, Rutgers Cinema hosted a free early screening of Mimi Leder’s new film, “On the Basis of Sex.” The movie, set to be released this holiday season, follows a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she grows from college professor to American icon.

“On the Basis of Sex” is not a great film, maybe not even a good one, but it is a definite crowd-pleaser — fun for anyone looking for a sense of triumph. 

Starring Felicity Jones as the trailblazing lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice, the movie zips through her tribulations in the male-dominated law sector. She begins her law studies at Harvard Law School and is peppered with macro and microaggressions from professors, fellow students and passers-by. Dean of Harvard and later Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, played by Sam Waterston, is her main foil. 

After excelling at Harvard Law and a brief stint at Columbia Law School, Ruth sets out to join a prestigious firm. She is denied time and time again, either pointed to apply for a secretarial position or looked up and down by a male boss. Disappointed, she settles for a professorship at Rutgers, hoping to nurture the next generation of great lawyers — even though she set out to be one herself. 

Meanwhile at home, her husband Martin Ginsburg, played by a dreamy Armie Hammer, takes care of the home. He cooks (Ruth's specialty is a ghastly tuna casserole), cleans, takes care of their two kids and practices tax law. Ruth is subjected to be arm-candy at Martin’s work functions even though she, time and time again, proves herself to be academically superior.

Finally, Ruth finds an outlet for her gifts. While bitterly grading papers in the middle of the night, Martin brings Ruth a tax case. Initially reluctant to read it, Ruth quickly realizes this case has the power to upend the entire legal system. The case posits that a man is being discriminated on the basis of his gender. She aims to represent him and change the country.

Ruth brings the case to her friend at the ACLU, Mel Wulf, played by a wonderfully mustachioed Justin Theroux. Wulf transforms from casual misogynist, telling Ruth to smile and criticizing her law skills, to praising her. This is a classic trope in all biopics. It works because it gives the audience a redemption arc — it is hammy but occasionally delightful. Together Wulf, Ruth and Martin head to the Colorado Court of Appeals to argue their case. Obviously, they end up winning and transforming the U.S. Constitution. It's pandering, but it’ll make any liberal smile. 

“On the Basis of Sex” is nowhere near as good as this year’s documentary “RBG,” which provided a life-spanning look at Ruth. But that is fine. It is not meant to do anything but make the audience cheer, shout and laugh. It succeeds at that.

Seeing the movie at a sold-out screening enhanced the experience greatly. I was tepid about this movie, I wasn’t even sure I would see it. But the joy in the room at viewers seeing a young Ruth overcome entrenched misogyny and sexism while literally changing the country was gratifying. 

I predict “On the Basis of Sex” will be a perfect holiday movie, and will do well at the box office. It is barely a passable biopic, aiming for cheers rather than facts, cliché over innovation. But that won't take the smile off the face of anyone leaving the theater. 


Eamonn O'Neill

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