ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mimi Leder
Screenwriter: Daniel Stiepleman
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 11/20/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
In 1972 a single male caring for his disabled mother was denied a $296 tax deduction that he claimed. In 97% of cases such a minor situation ends up with the guy’s writing the sum off. But this fellow in Colorado not only went beyond tax court, where almost every disagreement is settled. He took the case to a federal court of appeals. (I’m not clear on the reason the case was not first heard by a federal district court.) Quite rare. You needed a superwoman to win this one, and he found her. RBG, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, depicted by Kate McKinnon not on Saturday Night Live as Wonder Woman may be stretching the truth somewhat though the octogenarian does pushups and indulges in resistance training. By granting two movies to the public about the prominent justice—“RBG” a documentary, and now “On the Basis of Sex,” the industry finds special appeal in Ms. Ginsburg, though it remains to be seen whether Mr. Justice Kavanaugh gets a movie treatment—which will probably be not as warm as Hollywood has given to Ginsburg.
The final third of “On the Basis of Sex,” as directed by Mimi Leder—whose “Pay It Forward” is a sentimental look at a youth who decides to do good for the world—is the most riveting. By contrast, the first two segments play up certain sentiments to broaden its appeal. For example, Daniel Stiepleman’s script pays attention to Cailee Spaeny in the role of Ginsburg’s teen daughter Jane, including a scene that finds her telling off a trio of construction workers who gently harass her. The love between Ginsburg, here played by Felicity Jones who appears in most scenes, and her handsome and considerably taller husband Martin (Armie Hammer), is played up. The audience is encouraged to boo (mentally, we hope, for the sake of audience concentration) when the Dean of Harvard Law school, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) tells Ruth that she should be gratified even to be accepted as one of the only eight women in the school. Harvard students, except for the women, all report to class in dark suits and ties, and there is not a single African-American face in the group during a rebellious time in the U.S. of the late sixties, early seventies. What’s more even when Ginsburg graduates from law school—she switched to Columbia to allow her to be with her husband who landed a job in New York—a law firm ignores the applicant’s first-in-her-class status to say that “our wives would be jealous if we hired a woman.”
Catharsis is achieved with considerable dramatic effect during the appearance before the federal Court of Appeals in Denver where one Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) has been denied a $296 tax deduction. He had hired a nurse to take care of his wife, who is disabled, has dementia, and is in a wheelchair, but the tax court, following the law, notes that men who had never married are not eligible to deduct for such care while a woman, a divorced man and a widower is eligible for the deduction. The specific law is this:
(a) General rule.-There shall be allowed as a deduction expenses paid during the taxable year by a taxpayer who is a woman or widower, or is a husband whose wife is incapacitated or is institutionalized, for the care of one or more dependents (as defined in subsection (d) (1)), but only if such care is for the purpose of enabling the taxpayer to be gainfully employed.”
In what might pass for a cliffhanger, it looks as though the case would be lost. The three male judges signal by subtle body language that they have no intention of declaring this law unconstitutional. Fighting for Moritz are Ruth, her husband Martin, and an energetic, extroverted staff member of ACLU Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). The government side include the solicitor general, the same fellow who had been the sexist dean of Harvard Law School.
While the case is going badly for the appellant, fighting against the forces of the U.S. Government, and Ruth appears to be so nervous that she is unable convincingly to answer questions that the judges pepper her with, the final four minutes of her argumentation changes the world, or at least the U.S.
So, feel-good this film is. Whether a broad commercial audience might follow the legal arguments is debatable, though anyone with focus should be able to understand the briefs. Felicity Jones, though a British woman who grew up in the Midlands, handles a perfect American accent and is ably supported by her colleagues, surely to the extent that the real Justice Ginsburg—who shows up in the final scene—must be pleased.
120 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+