I had one strong thought in my head after seeing Mimi Leder‘s On The Basis of Sex (Focus Features, 12.25), a well-meaning but mediocre saga about the formative years of legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones).
That thought was that Betsy West and Julie Cohen‘s RBG, the hit documentary about Ginsburg’s life and career, is a much better movie — smarter, more engrossing for sticking to the facts, no callow tricks or formulaic finessings. And yet it gets you emotionally.
On The Basis of Sex is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg primer for none-too-brights — a frequently unsubtle, Hollywood-style treatment that clumsily tries to milk or manipulate every emotional occurence or, failing that, charm the audience at every turn.
At every juncture the story seems to have been dumbed down to appeal to (what’s a tactful way of putting this?) viewers whose lips move at they read supermarket tabloids.
Clunky, on-the-nose dialogue. Rote direction. Cardboard characterizations. Over-acted, hamfisted performances, particularly by the sexist male villains. (Sam Waterston!) Trite plotting, predictable strategies and, in one climactic instance, the use of cliched dramatic invention that made me twitch and groan in my seat.
The term “charm offensive” has never been more grossly demonstrated than a moment in which Justin Theroux, portraying ACLU legal director Mel Wulff, greets Jones with a kind of pep-rally song that involves vigorous thigh-slapping.
Bader speaks with a fairly distinctive Brooklyn accent, so how is Jones at imitating this? Not so hot. I couldn’t really hear “Brooklyn” in her speech patterns. What I heard was “British actress doing a decent job of sounding American but not really trying to get the Brooklyn thing right.”
Believe it or not there’s a sex scene between Jones and Armie Hammer, playing Ginsburg’s attorney husband Martin. Ruth Bader Ginsburg doing the nasty? Please…cut away! It was this utterly pointless detour that told me On The Basis of Sex wouldn’t be panning out. My hopes actually started to sink less than 10 minutes after it began.