Erin Brockovich
Erin Brockovich

USA, 2000.  Rated R.  135 minutes.

Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, Veanne Cox, Conchata Ferrell, Tracey Walter, Peter Coyote
Writer: Susannah Grant (based on a true story)
Music: Thomas Newman
Cinematographer: Edward Lachman
Producers: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Director: Steven Soderbergh


Grade: B+ Review by Dana Knowles

E rin Brockovich opens with a shot of Julia Roberts (as the titular Erin) attempting–and failing–to sell herself in a job interview. It's a perfect place to start a film that's essentially about personality, especially this film about personality, which itself exists as a showcase for Hollywood's peculiar version of personality: screen presence. Love her or hate her, Roberts is awash in the stuff, and Erin Brockovich affords her the opportunity to show just how deep it goes.

The story commences when Erin drives away from her interview and smack into an auto accident that is clearly not her fault. She hires low-rent attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney) to mount a lawsuit against the driver, but her fiery personality (and the other driver's status as a doctor) moves the jury to rule against her, leaving this twice-divorced single mother ticked-off, destitute, and desperate for a job. Julia RobertsShe bullies Masry into giving her one at his law firm, and he reluctantly agrees. Though she works hard, Erin is roundly dismissed and disliked by the rest of the staff, not least because of her wardrobe, which can best be described as tight, short, and heavy on low cut.

While doing some routine filing work, Erin notices some medical documents that seem out of place in a client's real estate file. Curious, she asks a staffer about this, but is rudely rebuffed for being ignorant about her job. Not satisfied to let the issue drop, she investigates further, and discovers a heartlessly brazen cover-up by corporate giant PG&E, whose cost-cutting policies have resulted in the poisoning of an entire California town and its residents. Without assistance or guidance from Masry or his staff, Erin travels to the town, interviews the gravely ill client (Marg Helgenberger) whose file caught her attention, discovers that PG&E has duplicitously co-opted the loyalty of the unsuspecting residents, becomes outraged, and immerses herself in research, hoping to find the necessary proof to force PG&E to admit wrongdoing and compensate the residents for their horrendous losses. This–of course–gets her fired (briefly, anyway), and the rest of the film charts her dogged efforts to attain justice for the townfolk and a measure of genuine respect for herself.

Though Erin Brockovich certainly treads on familiar fight the power turf (echoes of Norma Rae, Silkwood, and A Civil Action abound), director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey) has wisely taken the scenic route, focusing more on Erin's personal journey and her human interactions than on the righteousness of her cause or the pathos of the victims she champions. The ebb and flow of the case comes to dominate her world, and she is soon faced with the disintegration of her home life. As her professional life catches fire and her sense of self worth blossoms with each small victory, she is increasingly estranged from her children and her lover (Aaron Eckhart), resulting in a mixed bag of triumph and defeat. Roberts handles every scene with effortless charm and conviction, never straining for the big moment or begging for artistic credibility. She's in full command of her talents here, and focuses her energies with laser-sharp precision. Her performance is truly a joy to behold. Albert Finney and Julia Roberts

Soderbergh's trademark stylishness and penchant for quirky structure take a back seat in Erin Brockovich. Instead, he opts to get out of the way and give center stage to his star. It's a remarkable shift--and an impressive one--because his restraint shows a somewhat selfless understanding of the strengths of both Roberts and the material, and he willfully avoids detracting from them with undue directorial flourishes. This is a Hollywood star vehicle, and he treats it like one. Blessed with a scantily-clad firecracker for a protagonist, Soderbergh's camera revels in the physical beauty of Roberts. Erin's preference for putting her cleavage on proud display is both a character trait and a boon to the entertainment value of the film itself. How can our attention lag when we're on the edges of our seats waiting to see what she'll wear next? The fact that Erin uses her cleavage as a weapon (and rather successfully so) serves to alleviate any sense of guilt about enjoying the view. One of her more charming traits is her common sense comprehension of what works. Cleavage works. It works on those whom Erin encounters, and it works on Soderbergh's audience too, thereby functioning as both thematic weight and a bit of wry commentary.

Beyond the exemplary work of Roberts, the performances are uniformly strong and engaging, though (with the notable exception of Finney) most of the peripheral characters remain exceedingly peripheral. Aaron Eckhart brings a low-key sweetness to the role of Erin's biker boyfriend, George. Their early scenes together are quietly sexy and admirably natural. Unfortunately, he disappears for most of the second half, leaving a minor–but palpable–gap in the flow of the narrative. Finney is charming and frequently amusing as the somewhat spinelessly affable rogue Erin works for. Helgenberger has a few nice moments, but is rarely onscreen, and the same can be said for the remainder of the supporting cast. This is Julia Roberts' movie from start to finish, and the sparing use of everyone else is almost certainly beneficial to the final result, odd as that might sound.
The Big Picture
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Though not entirely artless, the look of the film eschews Hollywood gloss for a healthy measure of working-class realism. Erin's suburban neighborhood and home are believably plain and scruffy, as is the law office of Masry. The small town terrain on view affords no opportunities for breathtaking vistas, nor is the city of Los Angeles framed and lit for optimum allure. The net effect of this approach is to make Roberts' visual appeal (especially those outfits) even more prominent and striking, and it also allows the last act shift to more luxurious locales (the tony offices of a more powerful law firm) to provide a notable contrast with Erin's natural habitat, underlining just how far she's come through her efforts. These are simple choices, and smart ones. They help to keep the film grounded, which adds to its appeal by avoiding the sort of unwarranted grandiosity that all but screams Oscar bait!

Erin Brockovich is not groundbreaking cinema, but it is a terrific specimen of that dying breed among mainstream filmmaking: the smart, well-written, well-acted, well-intended movie. Star vehicles are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but genuinely good star vehicles are about as commonly found as middle-aged truckers at a Backstreet Boys concert. Though the issues it raises are important, the film never stoops to plodding preachiness to make itself seem important. The legal battle is key to the plot and character development, but it remains primarily in the background, serving as a springboard for Erin's display of grit and integrity, rather than the centerpiece of the film's drama. The David and Goliath aspect is mostly underplayed, though it surfaces on two levels... both in the form of the small lawyer against the big corporation and in the struggle of an (almost alarmingly sexy) unskilled housewife/mother to retain her surface while convincing others to see past it.

Erin Brockovich didn't teach me anything I don't already know, nor did it rock my world with a visionary take on any of its themes. Still, I enjoyed it from frame one. It's nice to sit through an ordinary movie without holding your nose, and truly delightful to bask in the glow of a star at the peak of her radiance. Thus, credit where credit is due. Dropped into the notoriously fallow spring release season, Erin Brockovich is a welcome sight indeed: a charming, sassy, unassuming rose among the vast expanse of weeds.

Review © March 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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