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OG RBG – ‘On the Basis of Sex’

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Biopics are harder than you think. Telling the story of a real person – a person that your audience likely has some foreknowledge of and feelings about – requires a delicate touch, finding the balance between veracity and narrative. You want it to be true, but you also need it to be engaging.

And when you’re dealing with a person who’s currently living, it’s a good deal tougher still.

That’s where we are with “On the Basis of Sex,” the new biopic telling the story of the early days of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she crusaded for the cause of gender equality in classrooms and courtrooms – the same Ruth Bader Ginsburg currently sitting on our country’s Supreme Court. It’s the story of one brilliant woman’s efforts to be taken seriously in a world ruled by men who doubt not just her, but everyone with whom she shares a gender.

It’s a story with its compelling moments, to be sure, with a young RBG unapologetically striving to do what is right against seemingly insurmountable odds. And the cast is really talented from the top down. But it never really rises. It’s a nice enough movie, well-acted with a fascinating subject, but it isn’t much more than that – the kind of pretty good film that you expected to be a bit better.

In 1957, young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) enters Harvard Law School as one of just a handful of women in her class. She and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, “Sorry to Bother You”) – who is a year ahead of her at Harvard – and their new baby settle in to take it all on together.

Shockingly, there are some less enlightened types at Harvard Law in the ‘50s. Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston, TV’s “Grace and Frankie”) doesn’t believe Ruth or her fellow women deserve the opportunity that they’ve been given. Nor do many of her teachers – particularly Professor Brown (Stephen Root, TV’s “Barry”) – though they are eventually forced to reluctantly acknowledge her academic acumen.

As their time in school comes to an end, Martin immediately gets picked up by one of New York City’s most prestigious firms as a tax lawyer. However, despite her sterling credentials, Ruth can’t get a foot in any law firm’s door; she eventually becomes a law professor at Rutgers.

But when Martin stumbles across a seemingly innocuous tax case whose potential repercussions represent a possibility of a seismic social shift, Ruth is set on a path at whose long, winding end is the highest court in the land. Simply put: a man is the subject of gender discrimination. If she can successfully appeal this case, the door is open for gender discriminatory laws of all sorts to be struck down.

With help from ACLU lawyer – and Ruth’s former camp counselor – Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, TV’s “Maniac”), Ruth and company pursue this case for months, a case that could be the one that she was born to win. All so that she can ensure that her own daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny, “Bad Times at the El Royale”) doesn’t have to fight the same battles fought by women of the previous generations.

One of the biggest issues with “On the Basis of Sex” – perhaps THE biggest – is the tendency toward the formulaic. It seems a bit reductive to shoehorn the rich and real story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a structure that’s a bit cookie-cutter. This film hits the same beats in the same rhythms as a million other movies; it would have been nice to see some of the story’s rougher edges.

None of that is to say that the movie is bad. It’s a well-executed film, with a nice, clean look that captures the aesthetic of the times. Director Mimi Leder has spent most of the last two decades directing for the small screen, but while there are occasional moments that feel TV procedural-y, for the most part she keeps things compelling.

And the performances are actually quite good. Jones was a great choice; she imbues RBG with a wonderful spark. It’s a lovely blend of intellect and relentlessness, capturing the type of spirit willing to fight a battle it is unlikely to win. It takes a special performer to play someone real, but Jones tackles it with relish. And other than the occasional struggle to maintain RBG’s distinctive accent, it’s spot on.

The ensemble is an embarrassment of riches. Hammer is great as the unwaveringly supportive Martin, giving us a snapshot of a man secure enough in himself to celebrate his wife’s genius. It’s a charming, genuine performance. Theroux has a knack for finding the 50/50 jerk/nice guy sweet spot; he definitely does it here. Sam Waterston is EXACTLY the guy you want as your kind-of-antagonist in a movie like this. Root’s a delight as always. Spaeny might be the next big thing. And that’s not even mentioning Kathy Bates, who is magnificently irascible as pioneering lawyer Dorothy Kenyon.

“On the Basis of Sex” has a lot going for it, but for whatever reason, it just misses. It’s a good movie and a worthwhile movie, but it isn’t quite the Oscar-worthy awards contender it hoped to be.

[3.5 out of 5]

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