Director Mimi Leder returns to the big screen after ten years with a movie that’s strong and sincere, and maybe a bit too sweet.
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I can’t remember the last time a movie was almost derailed by its musical score. On the Basis of Sex recounts the hard journey undertaken by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lawyer who tried to battle gender discrimination in the ’50s and ’60s. It was a tough task, but she persevered and was eventually appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. Doesn’t this sound like a story worthy of a great film, and not one that uses its soundtrack to distract us?
I won’t pretend to know all about Ginsburg, because apart from Fox News incorrectly announcing her death a few weeks ago, I don’t. As portrayed by Felicity Jones, she seemed like a woman of strong will, insecure, but aggressive in her belief in equal justice. She wanted to learn law during a time when it was common for nine women to share a classroom with five hundred men. She was once asked by her dean, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”
Sadly, the film suffers from a screenplay that doesn’t stop to consider non-Americans. All sorts of legal jargon about the American justice system are thrown at us, while we are expected to smile and nod along. The screenplay is written by Daniel Stiepleman, who would’ve benefitted from studying The Social Network (2010). That, too, was a movie that could’ve made no sense, but it was told in flashback so that the hyper-complicated world of programming got broken down into simple English. On the Basis of Sex is good-hearted and well-made, but its screenplay needs a deeper point of entry.
The backbone of the movie is a case involving Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a bachelor caregiver from Denver who is denied tax deductions because it is assumed all caregivers are female. Ruth jumps at the opportunity to represent a male client who has been discriminated against because of his gender, believing it will open the floodgates to more radical change. Here, On the Basis of Sex is quite compelling. It makes a convincing case for gender equality under the law, and some of the movie’s best scenes include Ruth and her lawyer husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), preparing to face the court.
But alas, I return to the distracting music. You know those family movies of the ’90s, like Flubber, where sweeping violins triggered a scene change, or menacing brass notes heralded the villain? The score of On the Basis of Sex is very much like them. It is composed by Mychael Danna, who seems a little out of ideas. Had there been no spunk in Jones’ performance, no real warmth in her relationship with Hammer, no depth to their story, Danna might’ve had to plead guilty.
On The Basis Of Sex is available in Australian cinemas from February 7
Image courtesy of eOne Films