Ultimately, On the Basis of Sex is exactly the thing it most evidently appears to be: a paint-by-numbers biopic that rewards its audience for having politics more socially progressive than people had 50 years ago, and which was clearly aiming for Oscar glory until the distributor figured out far enough in advance that it was better just to make it a commercial play, given that it didn't have the right stuff to actually compete for awards.* And yet. As far as such things go, it pushes back a little bit. Maybe it paints by numbers, but it is willing to slop around the lines; maybe it rewards the viewer's politics, but in part by demonstrating how those politics came to be formed in the first place.

I'm not going to go all crazy-like and try to tell you that the movie is some kind of subversion of its genre, but as combination biopics and message movies go, it's got a few curveballs to throw our way. The first of these is, simply, that it's relatively well-made. The very first scene demonstrates that director Mimi Leder - who has been locked in movie jail ever since the legendarily awful Pay It Forward way back in 2000, mostly working in television over the last two decades - knows more than a little bit about how to gently guide our eye and do all of the work of storytelling visually: it's depicting the moment that a young law student named Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) arrives for her first day at Harvard Law School, and there's something really and truly impeccable about how Leder and cinematographer Michael Grady frame crowd scenes so that we simply can't help but notice the tiny Ginsburg and the subtle expressions running across Jones's face (she's trying to be both invisible and proud of her visibility at the same time), and all by having the fact that she's so easy to overlook calling attention to how much she stands out, the one errant bit of composition. It's kind of a perfect opening, letting us know right away what we already knew, that this bit of the movie will be mostly about the young legal genius constantly failing to gel with the all-male leadership of Harvard, and the legal industry for which it keeps the gate.

I say "this bit of the movie", because as it turns out, this opening (set in 1957 and a couple of years thereafter) is sort of a mini-movie crudely functioning as prelude to the actual movie. It's a somewhat weird game that screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (the real-life Ginsburg's nephew) is up to: what happens when the film jumps ahead to 1970 is structurally and tonally very different than the exceedingly boilerplate biopic notes of this prologue-type thing. Better, too, but that's not even the point. It has of late become widely understood that there are two basic approaches to biopics: one that presents a cradle-to-grave or some briefer summary of the subject's whole life, and one that centers on a specific event in a constrained span of chronology. On the Basis of Sex seems to want to be both of these.

This doesn't work for it anywhere during the first act, which despite Leder's steadying presence, as well as a committed, controlled performance by the extravagantly miscast Jones (who has never been better in a film that I've seen, even if she's a perilously counterintuitive choice to play a Jewish Brooklynite), keeps wandering into the normal biopic beats, as we watch the young famous person do things that will pay off later in famous ways, whilere there's not even the most minor hint of narrative momentum. That latter problem gets amplified in On the Basis of Sex, given that there very much is narrative momentum going on here, once the film leaps forward and stops trying to be the story of Ginsburg's life, and instead becomes a story of her legal acumen.

The bulk of the two-hour movie consists of watching Ginsburg, who wound up as a professor at Rutgers after being denied work at every law firm in New York due to her gender,† work with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) as they assemble a case that will argue that discrimination on the basis of gender is unconsitutional by means of an unusual situation where a man has been denied his rights on the basis of sex (by the way, the "drink every time they say the movie title in dialogue" game will get you good and fucked up with this movie). Basically, it's a legal procedural - not a legal thriller, as it is too talky and down-to-earth, though the scene where Ginsburg almost fatally fucks up her first-ever oral argument is certainly good for a momentary chill to your heart - in which we watch a legal genius be a legal genius, rather than just have a bunch of peopleΒ call her a legal genius. Which is radically adventurous, by biopic standards.

Honestly, I dug it. By shearing away everything from Ginsburg - the rest of her career, her memes, her iconic status for 2018-style feminism rather than 1970-style women's lib - and just watching as she sweats and works herself to a frazzle to do the tedious labor of lawyering, On the Basis of Sex makes a far better argument that she's an interesting and accomplished human than anything in the pandering, shallow, hagiographic documentary RBG, which also came out in 2018. This is not to be sure, free of pandering (the dialogue grows increasingly heavy and hectoring as the film progresses), and though it's mostly free of hagiography, it indulges itself at long last in a rather crummy final shot that shows the real-life Ginsburg striding up the steps of the Supreme Court in rapturous slow-motion, like a superhero in a Zack Snyder movie. But the fact that it is free of either of them for substantial stretches is far more than I think we had any right to expect from any biopic in 2018, let alone a self-consciously politicised one. The film's small brilliance is to treat Ginsburg as a movie character and to treat her first great career triumph as a narrative arc in a fiction film, and to merely allow the results to sing as well-built, well-paced, well-acted entertainment. And damned if it's not entertaining - less so at the end, not much at all at the beginning, but genuinely interesting, even exciting storytelling in the heart of such transparent Oscarbait is a huge triumph in its own right, without expecting the movie to be somehow flawless on top of it.




*That being said, it is better - substantially so - than three of the biopics actually nominated for the 2018 Best Picture Oscar.




†This is more my problem than the film's, but "goddammit, if I can't get a good job, I guess I'll take this tenured position at a prestigious R1 university and hate myself for it" is quite possibly the least-sympathetic problem for a movie character to have that I can think of.