Hits Expected Notes;
Unlike Ruth, Doesn’t Blaze Trails;
But It Still Inspires.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has led such an incredible life and built such a historic legacy that an inspirational bio pic was inevitable. That it happened to come out the same year as a hit documentary about her could wind up being a blessing and a curse (who knows if the box office draw for this could have been bigger in a year with only one film on her life), but I think RBG is a great companion piece to this. After all, what we have here is only a small piece of a grand tale. As an origin story, it only whets the appetite, but if you want to know what happened next, you need not look far.
All around, this is a perfectly solid film whose strengths do a fine job of covering the flaws. It is exactly the movie you expect it to be, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it is clearly meant to be as digestible as possible for a wide audience. But it can’t seem to shake the feeling of being a very conventional film about a very unconventional person, following a Hollywood playbook to tell the story of a rule breaker.
Felicity Jones is terrific in the lead role, with a quiet ferocity that lives up to the subject. Ginsburg’s shadow looms much larger than her diminutive stature, and Jones holds her own to represent this. The film’s structure allows her to grow into the figure she would become, but you can see the qualities that allowed her to become such a force from early on. She may not have the accent mastered, but that doesn’t detract from how strong her performance is in a role that shines a bright spotlight, especially coming off of Ginsburg’s still-prominent role as Supreme Court Justice and her recent health scare. Armie Hammer is wonderful as her husband Martin, and the two of them share a great chemistry on screen. Ruth and Marty’s love story is grand, the two of them always working as a coherent unit and supporting each other on every level, and their scenes together are some of my favorite in the film. Marty was quick to cook, clean and help with the kids, and the film is wise not to celebrate these acts, but normalize them as Ruth tried to normalize the role of women in society on the same level as men. There is even a sex scene in the opening minutes of the film that is tender and sweet and serves as a good reminder to the current generation that only knows Ginsburg as she is now that she was young and sexual once, too. Thought she is extraordinary in many ways, in that way she is the same as the rest of us.
Director Mimi Leder handles her spot well, her cameras always seeming to study what’s going on and the characters inside the frame. She never detracts from what’s going on, and even manages to make some of the courtroom drama pop on screen, which isn’t easy to do. She gets good performances across the board from her cast and once again proves how strong she is behind the camera. Leder uses long steadicam shots to great effect, lettings things play out organically instead of relying too heavily on editing, and has a good handle on the pace of the film. Her career has had similar discriminatory parallels to that of Ginsburg, so the kinship she shares with the subject resonates on a deeper level than it otherwise would in other hands. This is a statement of change, and after one flop (Pay it Forward) earned her eighteen years of “movie jail” when male counterparts receive no such treatment after a studio failure, I hope this is her chance to get back into the system of studio filmmaking.
For all it does well, the film fails to be as remarkable as the woman it studies. Perhaps the issue is that you can’t condense such a legacy into two hours, but the focus on the Moritz case makes perfect sense because it was such a landmark case and pivot point in Ruth’s career. Framing the story with Rush starting out at Harvard Law School and leading up to that decision is smart, but the execution often feels like a paint-by-numbers approach. The script isn’t full of problematic dialogue (though it does, as expected, notch up the drama for big screen purposes), but it just doesn’t hit the highest notes that it could have. I enjoyed it and felt inspired, to be certain, but I had hoped it would somehow challenge me the way Ginsburg challenged…everything.