‘On the Basis of Sex’ is Infuriatingly Dull

Focus Features

I’m feeling the urge to use profanity. Well, more profanity than I might use in a typical review of a lukewarm movie. 

I’m also feeling the urge to use the first person, which I try not to do as a practice of objectivity, in as much as a film critic can be considering the whole job is to state an opinion. But I’m mostly reaching a point of exhaustion with the whole genre of the award-baity biopic. 

They’re so fucking stale. They’re coated with this layer of politeness so thick that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That they have to be made with permission from their subject (or their subject’s estate, either of which usually has a vested interest in the movie’s production) neuters the story. They become an unreliable source of information because nothing the subject could do can veer too far from a predetermined, politically correct path. This is not a case for “warts and all” necessarily, but a plea to take some goddamned risks with your story. Especially when your subject is Ruth Bader fucking Ginsberg. 

There are few people alive in the United States right now that matter more than Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Her literal existence is keeping this country afloat. Her recent health scares have pushed the entire country’s populous to the edge of their collective seats (whether you agree with her politically or not) and her absence threatens to derail decades of progress and stall progress for decades more. This person’s story is one of urgency because the consequences surrounding her very fucking personageare so dire. 

And no amount of triumphant shots of RBG walking in skirts and heels among pant-legged men will convince me On the Basis of Sex had any interest in being anything other than cute. The film strives to be the origin story for a real-life superhero whose revolutionary infallibility has made her a cultural icon. But instead of showing her strength, On the Basis of Sex would have you see her belly, her vulnerability, her set-backs, the moments when even she couldn’t be moved beyond rejection. 

The film is too cute. Too cheeky. It uses too many historical in-jokes that undercuts its subject’s importance. It’s respectful in a way that robs the magnitude of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s achievements. It’s respectful in the way that has become distasteful in a post-11/9 America. Of course she’s suffered set-backs. Of course she’s been made to feel unimportant and silenced. A lot of white, liberal soul-searching over the last two and a half years have resulted in unhappy realizations of what hasn’t changed, not what has. Progress is progress is progress, but by and large the marginalized are still so. There are few of us left that aren’t disenfranchised, and the function of a film like On the Basis of Sex serves mostly as a reminder that forty years later, those in power still have their thumbs pressed firmly on this country’s forward momentum. 

We live in a time that’s too weird and nasty and tumultuous and to settle for respectful. Of course making a movie about a living legend is difficult. But On the Basis of Sexfailed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story. This film is a history lecture instead of a battle cry. Its crowning achievement was landing a cameo by Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the final moments. She’s reached the top of the steps of the Capitol Building and there she is, despite her movie, a steel fucking beam. It’s enough to make you cry. 

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