While the structure occasionally feels a bit awkward, “On the Basis of Sex” has the kind of crowd-pleasing story that skims over any minor shortcomings. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
You are likely to walk out of “On the Basis of Sex” filled with awe for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for many reasons. While at Harvard Law School, she was capable of astonishing feats: While her husband Marty, a fellow law student, fought cancer, she attended both his classes and hers — typing up both of their papers late at night — while managing their household and coordinating child care for their daughter. As a young attorney, she argued a landmark case on gender discrimination, the story of which forms the bulk of this film. And, at its end, you get a glimpse of the actual RBG herself, looking steely and formidable and as if she just might be able to fly, given the right cape.
It’s an enjoyable movie about a remarkable American success story, written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder. Felicity Jones plays a young, laser-focused Ginsburg, who stands out at Harvard in the 1950s in a sea of men in dark suits. We watch as she faces her own gender discrimination — the all-male faculty ignores her raised hand in class and condescends to her outside of it — but endures, thanks to the encouragement of Marty (Armie Hammer, playing the blandly-supportive-spouse role usually relegated to wives in biopics). The movie then jumps ahead to her days of struggling to get a job — it’s not easy, in her words, for “a woman, a mother, and a Jew to boot” to get hired by a law firm in 1959. And then we jump again, to 1970 and the case that could, and did, change her career.
While the structure occasionally feels a bit awkward, “On the Basis of Sex” has the kind of crowd-pleasing story that skims over any minor shortcomings; by its end, you’re ready to cheer. “What’s at stake is the American family,” argues Ginsburg’s opposition in court; cut to a domestic scene of the Ginsburg family, with Marty cooking and everyone engaged in vivid conversation. This very American family, with a superhero in a sensible skirt suit at its center, is clearly doing just fine.
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★★★ “On the Basis of Sex,” with Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny. Directed by Mimi Leder, from a screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content. Opens Dec. 25 at multiple theaters.