If we learned one thing from last year's documentary RBG, it's that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg works her ass off. But a lifelong habit of toiling over briefs into the wee hours is difficult to dramatize. Certainly, most people don't look as dewy at their desks as actor Felicity Jones does in the few scenes of On the Basis of Sex that actually depict Ginsburg doing the work that goes into a brilliant courtroom argument.
We can't blame screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (who is Ginsburg's nephew) and director Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward) for focusing on Ginsburg's family life and jacking up the drama; that's standard biopic procedure. But we can blame them for hitting predictable beats at every turn, and for not giving us a fraction of the sense of Ginsburg's personality we got from the documentary.
The film takes us from Ginsburg's years at Harvard Law School to her 1972 case Moritz vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, an early instance of a court striking down a law based on gender discrimination. We see how Ginsburg herself faced such discrimination — first at school, where she excelled, and then when she applied to New York firms that all found convenient reasons not to hire her.
In one scene, when the patronizing dean of Harvard Law (Sam Waterston) asks the class' nine female students to justify their presence, Ginsburg says she just wants to support her husband, fellow law student Marty (Armie Hammer). That really happened; in a 2015 New York Times piece, Ginsburg recalled that she was mortified and said what she knew the dean "expected" to hear. It's a conciliating, compromising moment that countless women can relate to.
But the film never delves into Ginsburg's feelings about that exchange or shows us why she actually did want to be a lawyer. Stiepleman and Leder are too busy setting up moments in which Jones — struggling with her accent — can wear pretty period fashions and look plucky and inspiring.
To the filmmakers' credit, the movie spends significant screen time exploring Moritz and why it mattered. Arguing the case of a man (Chris Mulkey) who sought a caregiver tax deduction reserved primarily for women, Ginsburg demonstrated that sex discrimination could hurt anyone. While the portrait of American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) as a cynical bro who calls such bias a nonissue may not be accurate, it does serve to illustrate the pervasive attitudes of the era.
In their efforts to make the case dovetail with Ginsburg's personal awakening, though, the filmmakers set up scenes that feel painfully fake. After visiting pioneering feminist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) and seeing her own teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), yell back at some catcallers, Ginsburg has a handy epiphany. "You're a liberated woman, Jane!" she gushes, suddenly convinced that society is ready for change.
While Jones summons all the emotions such scenes require, she never conveys the steeliness that radiates off Ginsburg in the documentary. There, we got the distinct sense of a woman who doesn't suffer fools. In On the Basis, Jane complains about her mother's dogmatism, yet what we see, almost exclusively, is Ginsburg's softer side.
The result is an educational but superficial-feeling portrait. How did this tiny woman from Brooklyn get so confident? How did she and Marty swing a marriage that seems unusually egalitarian even in our time? The documentary didn't answer every question about Ginsburg, either, but it managed to earn its sappy inspirational music. This movie makes us want to escape those stirring strings.