Judge biopic does not do her justice

REVIEW / BIOPIC DRAMA

ON THE BASIS OF SEX (PG13)

120 minutes/ Now showing/ 2.5 Stars

The story: This biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, begins with her (Felicity Jones) entering Harvard Law School in 1956. She is married to Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and the mother of an infant daughter. As one of nine women in a class of 500, she faces hostility from both her professors and classmates, in spite of her stellar performance as a student. The film ends in the 1970s, when she and her team of civil rights lawyers take up a case in which a man has been discriminated against because of his sex.


The 85-year-old Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an unlikely pop icon.

She is affectionately mimicked on the comedy show Saturday Night Live and is on T-shirts bearing the moniker "Notorious RBG", a play on a late rapper's name.

In a United States that has chosen a president who aims to turn back the clock to the time before feminists and racial minorities "ruined" the nation, Ginsburg's reputation as a progressive has made her an Internet meme embraced by the embattled left.

Which is why this biopic about the woman who was appointed to the highest court in the US by President Bill Clinton in 1993 is being released now.

The timing makes good marketing sense, but did the movie have to be such a bore?

It opens with Ginsburg entering Harvard Law School, a place that welcomes women as long as they keep their heads down and never embarrass the male students by appearing smarter than them.

In a series of clashes with chauvinist students and harrumphing professors, she is rarely the victor, more the victim - the scenes include one in which she struggles to find a job in firms that do not hire women - and she tends to walk away, frustrated.

 

Her solace lies in the arms of her beloved husband Martin (Hammer) and children.

That odd emphasis on her softer side might have to do with under-writing or the Hollywood rule that women protagonists must never be as tough as a male or risk becoming the dreaded S-word - shrill.

That insecurity about getting into the gritty details of what it takes to break the legal glass ceiling is an ironic line to take in a movie about someone who cared so much about gender equality.

Director Mimi Leder (asteroiddisaster movie Deep Impact, 1998; episodes of the excellent drama series The Leftovers, 2014 to 2017) knows how to deliver an emotional punch, but the screenplay's fear of digging into Ginsburg's fierce intelligence leaves Leder hamstrung.

Strong actors like Justin Theroux (whom Leder directed in The Leftovers) and Kathy Bates appear in supporting roles and ought to have been astringent counterpoints to the saccharine flavours, but their parts fail to grow much beyond the broadly comic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2019, with the headline 'Judge biopic does not do her justice'. Print Edition | Subscribe