Story: The real-life story of Kiki Bader Ginsburg, and how she went from law school student, wife and mother to a Supreme Court justice. Yeah, her nickname is Kiki. That’s simply wonderful.
Genre I’d put it in: Captivating Biopics
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the original Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious R.B.G. herself.
Gotta say: I met R.B.G. once. And by “met”, I mean I sat two seats away from her at a ballet performance at the Kennedy Center. My sister found herself sitting next to The Notorious One, and started to freak out in not quite sotto voce. Said freakout was so long in its duration that the justice got up and switched seats with her husband. Meanwhile, I hovered between trying not to explode in laughter (my sister was mortified) and being absoutely gobsmacked that such an incredible woman was thisclose to me. By the way, the ballet was incredible. So’s On the Basis of Sex, even though there’s nary a plie to be seen.
The story starts off with Ruth’s first day at Harvard law school, and immediately launches into what would be RBG’s primary focus in her legal career; equality. Ruth is just a handful of women starting their 1L year at Harvard, and the dean invites the ladies to dinner, where he famously asks them if they can come up with a reason why they should be attending instead of a man. The usually beloved Sam Waterston dusts off his black hat for this role, and gives an understated but gut-punch of a performance. Call it the banality of misogyny, and it’s a shock that primes viewers for Ruth’s struggle. Armie Hammer is an absolute delight as Martin Ginsburg, Ruth’s husband and “chef supreme”. Hammer captures the humor and intelligence of the late attorney, and while the actor shines in the role he’s careful not to take the spotlight away from Felicity Jones’ Ruth.
As with The Theory of Everything‘s Jane, Jones crafts a layered performance that balances the woman, the mother, and the fierce legal intellect of RBG. It’s a riveting performance that felt authentic, with nary a glimmer of hero worship to be seen. From doing her homework while raising her kids to standing in front of the Supreme Court, Jones delivers a master class in portraying real life characters. And while Sex deals with RBG’s life from the start of law school to arguing Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in front of the Supreme Court in 1972, Jones’ performance made me eager for more. That’s the highest compliment I can give a performer, and it’s wholly deserved.
Daniel Stiepleman’s screenplay does grab for some low-hanging dramatic fruit at times; the cliché of The Powerhouse Ending Soliloquy is loud and proud here. That I noticed it at all while being enraptured by the performances and plotting shows how heavy-handed Stiepleman can get with this material. Jones may not weave hero adoration into her performance, but the screenplay can’t say the same. Director Mimi Leder comfortably balances the starry-eyed bits with historical scenes in much the same way she juggled disaster and character arcs in Deep Impact. (I love that movie. Fight me.) Sure, there’s the same touches of grandiosity here, especially whenever Ruth litigates. But all in all Sex is an outstanding film worthy of the larger-than-life lady whose story it tells. I didn’t believe it possible, but I have even more respect for everyone’s favorite Justice than I did before. That’s saying quite a lot.
#Protip: Watch the documentary RBG for an in-depth look at her life, often straight from Her Honor’s mouth.