As biopics go, On the Basis of Sex can seem almost as old school as some of the laws that its worthy subject spent her career objecting to and sought to correct. That would be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as the film is meant to celebrate her 25th year as the second female Supreme Court Justice. But as we watch RBG blossom into the notorious crusader against gender bias that she was born to be, one wishes that director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsberg’s nephew) took a few more chances in their approach to such an incredibly brave and smart woman whose super power was her cogent ability to state her arguments – a skill she eventually perfects in Sex just before the credits roll.
That said, English actress Felicity Jones steps up to the task of bringing to life this Brooklyn-born petite powerhouse, infusing her performance with zeal, honesty and believable feminine fortitude. Armie Hammer makes for the perfect supportive husband as tax law whiz Martin Ginsburg, even if he can’t hide his disdain of her early attempt at a tuna casserole. In fact, the whole cast– ranging from Sam Waterson as the chauvinist Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold to Kathy Bates as Ginsberg legal mentor and civil liberties activist Dorothy Kenyon — lifts the material they are given. And I do appreciate Leder’s eye for fashion details as the times keep on a-changing, from Ginsberg’s seamed stockings in the staid ‘50s to her chip-off-the-old-block daughter Jane’s ‘70s-era miniskirts.
But I find it interesting that the one case that serves as the movie’s climax concerns not women’s rights but a single man being denied to legally get a tax break for hiring a caretaker to look after his ailing mother so he can work. The male legal team who collude to fight Ginsberg’s argument in court that her client is being denied a right because of his sex are just too on-the-nose with their sense of male privilege and superiority to ever consider they might actually lose their case. At least Ginsberg herself gets a juicy cameo at the end. The best way to get the most out of “Sex,” however, is to do a double feature with the superior documentary RBG, which has made the short list of eligible Oscar docs.