Wednesday, December 26, 2018

ON THE BASIS OF SEX -- my review

Warning: ON THE BASIS OF SEX is the least sexiest movie with “sex” in the title that you will ever find. It’s about a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And when you think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sex is usually not the first thing that pops into your mind. This is a biopic/trial movie.

SPOILER ALERT for any film in the legal genre. Don’t read this if you plan to watch THE VERDICT tonight.

Ever notice that all trial movies are essentially the same? A lawyer takes on a seemingly impossible case, all the odds are stacked against him/her, the opposing attorneys are the best in the land, the judge is predisposed not to like our hero, and our hero is facing some personal issue (family or alcohol related). To make matters worse there is a sample trial or mock trial or some scene where we show our lawyer protagonist to be way in over his/her head.

If the issue resolves around an insurance company there’s usually the scene where the company is willing to settle and the poor schlep has to decide whether to take the money and walk away or fight for justice although in all likelihood he’ll then end up with nothing. Guess which path he always takes.

The big trial comes, it’s going really badly, our hero is circling the drain, and then somehow he/she pulls a rabbit out of their hat and wins the case. If you don’t believe me then “you can’t handle the truth.”

The trick is to make the movie skillful enough and enjoyable enough that you can just skim over these tropes. And that’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Felicity Jones plays young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The other term you don’t automatically think of when you think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is “plucky,” but that’s how she’s portrayed here. I happen to really like Felicity Jones and I love Ruth Bader Ginsburg so I was totally on board. On Rotten Tomatoes it received a 100% audience score, which tells me the film has not opened in any Red States. The script by Daniel Stiepheman was smart (although I did get lost in some of the legalize from time to time), and TV vet Mimi Leder directed with style (good to see her out of Movie Jail after directing PAY IT FORWARD).

The screenwriter’s uncle was Martin Ginsburg (Ruth’s husband) and he comes off as the most likeable flawless character in the history of cinema (although all reports say he WAS that likeable and terrific). And apparently, Ruth gave the writer extensive notes after one of the drafts (and who can overrule a Supreme Court Justice’s notes?).

I look forward to this being adapted for television with Tea Leoni as Ruth. (although if it’s developed by the CW it’ll be Laura Benanti and she can fly).

ON THE BASIS OF SEX is worth seeing – just remember it’s about the early years of Justice Ginsburg not Kavanaugh.

28 comments :

Pizzagod said...

Your last line dampened my enthusiasm.

I was so looking forward to hearing RBG exclaim "I like beer. I've always liked beer. I still like beer. Beer is good. Let's have a beer. Beer good, fire bad".

Covarr said...

As courtroom movies go, I always loved FROM THE HIP, largely for how well it avoids the tropes. A young hotshot who always takes the easy cases and always wins, the only personal/family crisis is relatively minor and caused by the stress of the movie's primary case, and the focus is not on whether Mr. Protagonist can with a case with the odds against him, but the ethical implications of his choices and how he handles things. Also a massive tonal shift from comedy to drama partway through, which I think was an incredibly ballsy move, but paid off (some folks disagree with me on that).

LIAR LIAR also breaks the mold of courtroom movies, but only insofar as it's barely about court procedure, and mainly uses that as a setting and excuse for Wacky Jim Carrey Antics™. It's a rare movie that manages to completely escape the established formula only because it's diving headfirst into a different established formula.

Ken Levine said...

LIAR LIAR is one of my favorite comedies (and I'm not a Jim Carrey fan). The script by Steve Mazur & Paul Guay is hilarious.

Joseph Scarbrough Puppet Productions said...

"And when you think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sex is usually not the first thing that pops into your mind." See, this is my issue with THE BIG DANG THEORY. When I was growing up, sex was not something that nerds obsessed over, let alone gave much thought about; this show, on the other hand, has made nerds into sexually depraved/repressed deviants who wanna bang any girl they can get with - now it's a stigma that apparently applies to almost all nerds nowadays. I've seen photos and videos people have taken when going to cons, and some of the activities those cosplayers get involved in almost look like softcore porn.

But, that's not what this blog entry is about, and there's really no need for this comment anyway, so whatever. Ignore me.

Dhruv said...

I have commented about this in your podcast about Hollywood lunches, that I my first exposure to America and its culture was through John Grisham's books.

You summary of a legal genre movie is spot on!
All of Grisham's books have more or less the same story. One man fighting everyone. Initially since I had no other exposure, his books were fascinating. A legal system where one man took on the mighty corporations and the corrupt system and won. Then later on it became predictable and boring. The movies based on his books were worse. No matter how big a star, all the movies based on his books were boring for me.

The cast of this movie are not my favorites, but based on your review I will try to see the movie, if it does get released here.

Gary said...

"100% audience score, which tells me the film has not opened in any Red States."

"just remember it’s about the early years of Justice Ginsburg not Kavanaugh."


And the hits keep on coming...........

Pat Reeder said...

To Dhruv...

If you like novels built around lawyers, John Grisham is the gateway through which you graduate to Scott Turow, the same way people start with comic books, then grow into real books. Or some people do, anyway.

Robert Brauer said...

The tropes about lawyer movies also apply to legal dramas on TV. This all reminds me of Vince Gilligan's comments on why he was so interested in doing a TV series focusing on Saul Goodman. He thought it would be fascinating to do a lawyer show about a lawyer who will do ANYTHING to stay out of a courtroom.

Come to think of it, given that so many cases are settled pre-trial, Better Call Saul is probably more accurate in that regard than your typical lawyer show.

sanford said...

There are liberals in red states. Bill Maher goes to those states and draws people all the time. Just because a movie has a liberal bent doesn't mean it won't do well in red states. I assume you were probably joking about that last part.

Pamela Atherton said...

One of my favorite legal films is with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall: THE JUDGE. The best line in the film (I wrote it down in my phone because I loved it so) is by Downey's character when someone is discussing his type of questionable legal work...

"Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in a hot tub."

Kudos to the screenwriters for that gem.

Peter Aparicio said...

I thought it might be about Bill Clinton's law career...

Anonymous said...

COVAAR---I like FROM THE HIP too. The tone shift works, from what I remember, because the main character's comedic fraud gets him into the crime drama mess.

Sean

Dhruv said...

Yes sir, I did.

For a period I was obsessed with his books too. But I don't know why, I suddenly stopped reading law thrillers totally. Sort of an overdose. In that period I searched AFI Top 10 and watched most of the top Courtroom Drama movies too. Then again stopped. I always think of re-watching '12 Angry Men', but never could bring myself to.

But other genres like 'Westerns' I keep watching them even if they are not rated high.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, if you saw the documentary of RBG earlier this year, you'd know that she was 1) quite "plucky" and 2) kinda cute

Gary said...

For my money the best courtroom drama of all time is still ANATOMY OF A MURDER. Jimmy Stewart is superb as a down-and-out lawyer, and it's very likely the accused murderer he's defending is actually guilty. I've never seen another movie that's so ambiguous about whether we should be rooting for the defendant or not.

Bill K said...

@Pat Reeder - I concur in part and dissent in part with your comment (in keeping with the leagl theme). Turow's work is great and everyone should check it out. It's not nearly as good as many comics though (Sandman, Maus, Watchmen, March, etc.)and the idea that one should graduate from them is nonsense. Many of us start watching television with animation before moving on to live action, but anyone who says that they've moved past say Ken's Simpsons episodes is obviously not someone whose opinions should be taken seriously.

Coram_Loci said...

Such movies should take a lesson from episodes of Futurama and South Park.

Futurama -- Fry, now a soldier fighting a war against another planet, learns that earthlings are the alien invaders.
South Park -- Stan is encouraged by cuddly woodland critters to kill a menacing mountain lion, only to discover that the critters are Satan worshippers.

It's not always easy to know which side wears the white hat in a legal dispute. That's frequently so because the law is often the product of various compromises. Moreover, to paraphrase a quotation: When play is set in Hell, do not expect the characters to be angels.

This movie sounds like a check-the-boxes, all Hail RGB, movie by numbers.
Cert denied.


The most unique legal movie I've seen is Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford. Everyone in that movie is dirty. Shortly after washing the hatchet the viewer is left wanting to take a shower.

Dave Logan said...

Saw it yesterday. The theater was nearly sold out at the 12:50pm screening Almost everyone there was over 50. Lots of applause at the end. Plenty of groans too whenever the old school sexism popped up.

VP81955 said...

Are there any legal films where the hero comes from a non-elite background and wins? ("Legally Blonde" doesn't count because Elle Woods went to Harvard Law School. I want a story whose protagonist beats Harvard Law and its elite ilk.) Personally, while I respect Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and am a progressive), the rock-star treatment of her is getting tiresome.

Anonymous said...

I think the film "Philadelphia" would qualify. I don't remember if they covered Denzel Washington's educational background, but his small personal injury firm was definitely a David vs Goliath story.

(Although... One could argue that the Tom Hanks character was elite... And was on the winning team... Darn it!!)

- Matt in RI.

Pat Reeder said...

To Bill K...

Sorry you think my opinions "should not be taken seriously," but what you listed are not "comic books," but are more commonly referred to as "graphic novels," specifically to differentiate them as being higher in quality than "comic books." And while all are fine for what they are, they are not on the level of genuinely great books, just as Maj. Winchester suggested that the Classic Comics version of "Moby Dick" was not on the same level as the original. You can argue all you want, but I will not take your opinion seriously.

Terrence Moss said...

That really goes without saying.

Janet Ybarra said...

But all in all let's pray our spleens out that this lady at least lives to 2021....

Elf said...

https://www.blogger.com/profile/11792390726196611188: "Are there any legal films where the hero comes from a non-elite background and wins?"

Three words for you: My Cousin Vinnie.

Granted, the disappointment sets in when you realize he won the case more because of his detective skills than wrangling of the legal system.

Howard said...

@Pat Reeder:
"Graphic novels" are comic book compilations. There is no inherent "quality" that separates graphic novels from comic books. There is only a publisher's assumption that reprinting the comic books in a compilation will make money.

The term was popularized in an attempt to re-brand comic books as something more acceptable to the snobbish sensibilities of a subset of readers. It has clearly worked.

Stories that are classics in one medium are very rarely translated successfully into another medium.

A bad (abridged) movie adaptation of a specific classic novel is hardly a condemnation of the quality of movies in general. The same way a bad (heavily abridged) comic book adaptation of a specific classic novel doesn't condemn all comic books.

tl;dr: You aren't making the point that you think you are.

emmphx said...

I love that this movie humanizes a woman we mostly know as old...Yes us older ladies were once hot, LOL. When I saw the RBG documentary, I was amazed to learn about her husband's illness while so young, when treatments were more arduous apparently...how RBG had to do things like get done before the sitter's time was up etc. All pertinent. BTW, my daughter is a bad-ass public defender in Sacramento, and RBG is her patron saint. She even has one of those glass prayer candles with RBG instead of the BVM on it... (BVM=Blessed Virgin Mary). BTW I live in reddish Arizona and it's been showing at one of the Scottsdale art theatres where all us liberals go.

Elizabeth Bell said...

Best idea for a courtroom drama ever: A stage play: Jury is taken from the audience. It’s a murder case. Evidence for and against defendant is evenly balanced. The verdict says more about the jury (audience) than about the defendant. The play is: Night of January 16th by Ayn Rand. Regardless of your opinion of the author’s philosophy, it’s a great idea for a play. Your verdict will reveal your philosophy.

Ed Thomas said...

Or, you know, some people read both comic books and “real” books (and this isn’t even getting into the question of whether reading something by, say, Danielle Steele qualifies as reading a real book).