****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. This piece of HERstory is a Hallmark movie sold as Oscar bait and is so cinematically underwhelming it should be stripped of the right to vote and forever kept in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, where it belongs.
On the Basis of Sex, written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for women’s legal equality as she ascends from Harvard Law School all the way to the Supreme Court. The film stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg with supporting turns from Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterson and Kathy Bates.
I knew nothing about On the Basis of Sex before I saw it, but as a red-blooded American male anytime I see the word “sex” in a sentence everything else goes out of focus, so when I saw the title it read as “__ ___ _____ __ SEX”. With a title like that how could I not be interested? But then the movie started…and I have bad news for you…there is no sex at all in On the Basis of Sex…there isn’t any nudity either. This revelation was most disconcerting to me and left me feeling as if On the Basis of Sex was the most misleading film title since The Never-Ending Story. What a rip-off!
The truth is I actually had no interest in seeing On the Basis of Sex as I had seen the trailer and it looked pretty abysmal, but thanks to MoviePass, it was my only film option the other day so I took the plunge. MoviePass has altered its service and now only offers very few films in my area, which has made the service rather useless to me. In its current form MoviePass is like fishing off of the Venice pier, the odds of catching something are very slim but then if you do catch something in those sewage infested waters, you get one look at it and wish you hadn’t….which perfectly sums up my experience with On the Basis of Sex.
On the Basis of Sex is a trite, saccharine, paint-by-numbers, made-for-tv bio-pic that is just dreadful to behold. From the uneven performances to the lackluster cinematography to the cliche-ridden script to the cloying music, everything in this movie is so predictable and dull as to be insipid.
On the Basis of Sex thinks of itself as Oscar bait, and I can see why, it is about an iconic female figure during our current “women’s moment/movement”, and is also directed by a woman, Mimi Leder. No doubt the studio and producers thought they were striking at the right time with the right story to cash in and gather some awards. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscar podium…a few people saw this movie and realized it was atrocious.
One of the big problems with the movie is that Mimi Leder is a hack of a director. Leder has had great success directing in television but television and film are two very different animals. Add to that the fact that the script, written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, is painfully pedestrian and you have one giant piece of Oscar bait that never even gets a nibble.
Regardless of your political perspective, there is no denying that On the Basis of Sex is a piece of propaganda, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with it being such rudimentary and ill-executed propaganda. Leder’s direction is stale and uninspiring and the script is painfully vacuous and remarkably paper-thin. There are some scenes where I audibly laughed, much to the irritation of the middle-aged ladies sitting in front of me. The scene where Ginsburg and her teenage daughter are caught in a rain storm in New York City and her daughter fends off catcalls from construction workers and hails a cab at the same time, was so contrived, absurd and artistically obtuse it made me spit up my root beer.
Felicity Jones is a fine actress, but she brings little to the table as Ginsburg besides steely-eyed righteousness and occasionally pronouncing the word lawyer as “lawyuh”. Ms. Jones’ struggle to give genuine life to the suffocatingly dull script is a quixotic undertaking and never amounts to much of anything.
The rest of the cast do not fair well either. Justin Theroux is a dead-eyed caricature as a hotshot ACLU lawyer and Kathy Bates misfires as a curmudgeonly attorney and…well…we also need to talk about Armie Hammer.
Armie Hammer is so awful in this movie he made my teeth hurt. Granted, Hammer is given nothing to work with in the abomination that is the script, but still…he somehow uses his terrible acting super powers to make the movie even worse. Hammer plays Ruth’s husband Martin, and from what I can tell Hammer’s Martin is a perfect cross between his character in Call Me By Your Name and a perpetually gently smiling saint. Hammer is so fake and so phony in the role it feels like your watching a two hour long toothpaste commercial sans the gravitas and character development.
Hollywood tried for years to make Armie Hammer into a movie star, and once they realized that wasn’t happening they shifted gears and have tried to make him a viable “actor”, and I have news for Hollywood…that isn’t working either. Maybe Armie should do us all, himself included, a favor and just go enjoy life and forget about acting for a while…or forever.
There is one scene in On the Basis of Sex that does unintentionally hit upon something mildly interesting, and that is where the villain, James Bozarth (portrayed by Jack Reynor), a dastardly lawyer for the government, talks to his collegues about how gender equality will change American culture. Bozarth is made out to be a one dimensional, misogynistic bad guy, but in the scene he says something fascinating. The two other government lawyers basically lay out gender equality to be as absurd as cats and dogs living together, but then Bozarth says that if equality happens then “wages go down and the divorce rate goes up”. I found it intriguing that this statement was mixed together with the other ludicrous statement because what Bozarth said isn’t ludicrous…it is true. Since women joined the work force en masse in the 70’s, divorce has gone up and wages have gone down. Which is not to say that women should not be treated equally, just that the law of unintended consequences is an unstoppable force regardless of how noble your cause may be…which might have been a more interesting theme to create a movie around.
In conclusion, On the Basis of Sex is a suffocatingly conventional, rather poorly made film that looks and feels more like a Hallmark or Lifetime movie than a major cinematic venture. I know Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a beloved figure and has been turned into a cultural celebrity, but the cinematic story of her life falls decidedly flat and needed a much more skilled and deft directing hand to make it worthwhile. Do not waste your time and energy seeing the chaste On the Basis of Sex, even if you can see it for “free” on Netflix or cable or using MoviePass. Speaking of MoviePass…since the pickings are so slim and I wanted to throw the stinky, rotting catch of On the Basis of Sex back into the water, I am going to cancel my subscription. I’d rather eat bait than the garbage MoviePass is currently sending my way.