2000, Universal. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger, Peter Coyote.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Recurring profanity, obscenity, and vulgarity; a non-marital affair; Julia Roberts in a lot of provocative outfits.
By Steven D. Greydanus
She’s abrasive. Sharp-tongued and crude. Hostile, suspicious; quick to take offense, grudging with apologies. And then, of course, there are those outfits. Plunging necklines that stop well after her bra starts. Peekaboo midriffs. Miniskirts no longer than the width of a cummerbund, but worn lower. Six-inch heels that elevate her already-tall frame head-and-shoulders above everybody else. (Julia Roberts, who plays Erin, is 5’9". The real Erin Brockovich, who plays a waitress in an early cameo, is 5’10".)
And yet, despite all this, there’s something decent about this Erin Brockovich. Something that responds to injustice with more than sympathetic clucking — with action, with personal commitment. Something that has active concern for people in need; something that such people intuitively trust. Her style could use some work, but her cause is just; and she’s indomitable, courageous, and resourceful.
Watching Erin take on corporate ruthlessness and professional apathy, I often felt that while I couldn’t always condone her choice of words, I appreciated the spirit behind them — not to mention the effect they had on her hapless victims. This movie makes you feel that one person really can make a difference; especially since it’s based on a true story.
Plotwise, Erin Brockovich covers familiar territory: We’ve seen small underdog law firms take on the amoral practices of giant corporations in such movies as A Civil Action, starring John Travolta and also based on a true story, and The Rainmaker, starring Matt Damon and based on a John Grisham novel. Erin Brockovich doesn’t have as complex or engrossing a story to tell as either of those films; but what keeps it fresh and interesting is the fact that Erin herself isn’t a lawyer — far from it — and the very un-lawyer-like quality of her blunt conversational style and glaring disregard for social convention casts these formulaic situations in an unforgiving (and entertaining) new light.
Director Steven Soderbergh, who more recently helmed Traffic, brings a sure hand to the proceedings, opening the film with a literal bang, and holding our interest throughout. He successfully conveys the passage of time, and brings home the sufferings of the ordinary people who have been victimized by the negligence of a large utility company.
What really makes Erin Brockovich work, though, is Julia Roberts’s satisfying, energetic, unaffected performance, perhaps the strongest in her career. Roberts handily reconciles the contradictions of a character who’s too short-sighted to realize how her startling wardrobe and vocabulary are hurting her in job interviews and on the witness stand, yet sharp enough to sense something amiss about medical records in a real estate transaction, track down arcane chemical distinctions between different ions of chromium, and memorize endless details that don’t make it into her sketchy notes.
The film is not without flaws. Chief among these is the absence of any compelling or interesting opposition for Erin. John Travolta in A Civil Action had to face Robert Duvall, and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker went up against Jon Voight. Erin’s antagonists (who to one degree or another include pretty much everyone on both sides) are mostly all insipid and limp, and too easily stupefied by her confrontational style. Even Albert Finney as Erin’s exasperated boss is dull and uninspired (except in a sparkling final scene); he has a speech about how this case could bankrupt him that made me think how much more important it seemed when John Travolta said the same thing in A Civil Action.
Perhaps all this is meant to underscore Erin’s strengths; but stronger supporting roles would have given her more to push against. Had any of her adversaries had enough panache to stop Erin in her tracks, to make her doubt herself, Roberts’ performance might have been even more compelling. As it is, Erin is far and away her own worst enemy — and a good thing too, because she needed at least one.
The formula wears thin, too, with Erin’s home life, where we get obligatory complications having to do with Erin’s growing responsibilities and involvement taking away from her time with her children and with her new-found relationship with George (Aaron Eckhart), a guy who’s about as two-dimensional as a self-respecting Harley biker and responsible, family-friendly baby-sitter can be. (Understandably suspicious at first, Erin warns George that being nice to her won’t get him into her bed; but before too long it does.)
Yet Soderbergh moves things along nicely, giving us enough juicy Erin Moments to keep us laughing and cheering. (The bit with the glasses of water was especially priceless.) After the movie was over, I found myself wondering if there had been another, later Erin Moment that didn’t make it into the film: Hollywood wants to make a movie about Erin’s story; and Erin insists that she be played by Julia Roberts.