Erin Brockovich (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The cinematic landscape of early 2000 is littered with the carcasses of disappointing dinosaurs presented by respected, or at least recognizable, filmmakers: John Frankenheimer and What Planet Are You From?, Danny Boyle and The Beach, Brian De Palma and Mission to Mars, and Roman Polanski and The Ninth Gate. Finally, with Erin Brockovich, Steven Soderbergh has at least temporarily halted the trend. Erin Brockovich is a source of unimpeachable entertainment - a breath of fresh air in an arid, lifeless desert of studio dumps and throwaways. An intelligent and involving thriller featuring a strong performance from lead actress Julia Roberts and scene-stealing work from Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich represents the first enthusiastic recommendation I can make for a 2000 motion picture.

Soderbergh has enjoyed an interesting career. He first burst onto the scene in 1989, when his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, had its world premiere at the fledgling Sundance Film Festival. Not only was the movie a huge success, but it elevated Sundance's status from a relatively unimportant regional film festival to the Mecca of American independent film making. (In Erin Brockovich, there's an in-joke that pays homage to Sundance - for those who are looking, it's not hard to spot.) In the wake of sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh went through a down period, with films like Kafka, the underrated King of the Hill, and The Underneath. A few years ago, however, he re-invented himself and re-energized his career with the George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez thriller, Out of Sight. Next came the well-received The Limey, featuring a career performance from Terence Stamp. Now, there's Erin Brockovich, which continues to keep Soderbergh near the top.

With its slant on the corporate pollution of groundwater and the resulting health concerns, Erin Brockovich couldn't have been released at a better time. Uncertainty about the use of MTBE in gasoline and revelations about the ease with which it can contaminate drinking water have dominated the news in recent weeks, and aspects of this movie will undoubtedly strike a nerve for some viewers. After all, few things can be more insidious than impure water, since water is one of the natural resources we take for granted. Like 1998's A Civil Action, which traversed similar territory, Erin Brockovich is based on an actual case - a fact that makes the basic storyline all the more discomforting.

The film opens with a car accident. The vehicle driven by Erin Brockovich (Roberts), an unemployed single mother of three, is broadsided by a speeding car at an intersection. She takes her case to lawyer Ed Masry (Finney), who agrees to represent her on a contingency basis. However, in court, Erin's surly manner and profane vocabulary do not endear her to the jury, which finds in the defendant's favor. Both Erin and Ed go home empty-handed. Still without work and needing to pay her bills, Erin tries an unusual approach to get a job: half-bullying, half-pleading with her former attorney for a position as a file clerk. With grave reservations, Ed relents.

When a pro bono real estate case file comes across her desk, Erin becomes intrigued and begins investigating. She soon learns that the water supply of the property in question may have been contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a "highly toxic, highly carcinogenic" compound that can get into a person's DNA. Erin's efforts uncover hundreds of potential victims of Pacific Gas & Electric's illegal dumping policy, and the information she puts together is convincing enough that Ed agrees to pursue the case. But fighting a $28 billion corporation in court is a daunting and expensive prospect, and Ed isn't sure he has the resources to see it through to the end. Meanwhile, the amount of time Erin is spending working is putting a strain on her relationship with her boyfriend (Aaron Eckhart) and keeping her away from her three children for lengthy periods of time.

Erin Brockovich is a unique legal thriller in that, during an era when overplotted and contrived stories like those of John Grisham define the genre, this movie is not littered with throw-away plot devices designed exclusively to generate tension. With only a minor exception, Erin is not followed by shadowy figures. She does not become the target of violence and terroristic threats. Erin Brockovich's suspense does not arise from the likelihood that someone will do something to harm her or her family (although the possibility certainly exists), but from the question of whether a David can succeed in today's legal world against "[Goliath's] whole family". This is the story of someone on the moral high ground fighting for what is right in a legal arena that too often favors those who have money to burn.

What makes this film different than, and superior to, A Civil Action, is its sense of balance. Erin's home life is not neglected; Soderbergh shows how her growing obsession with the case - something that is finally earning her respect - forces her to sacrifice important moments with her children. For example, in one of the movie's most poignant scenes, she learns that she missed the first word spoken by her infant daughter. She also becomes deeply, emotionally involved in the plight of the people of Hinkley, California, learning the names, phone numbers, and case histories of more than 600 people by heart.

Often unfairly denigrated by some critics because of her propensity for starring in crowd-pleasing romantic comedies, Julia Roberts may have finally found a role that will earn her some respect. With a performance that shows off both her comic and dramatic aptitude, Roberts brings the title character to life with a zest and intensity that may surprise viewers who have pigeonholed her into the Runaway Bride mold. This is not the first time Roberts has shown that she has unexpected range, but it may be the first time many people will recognize it. Meanwhile, Albert Finney, who is universally revered as a top actor, seems far more energetic here than he has in a number of recent roles. As a foil for Roberts, Finney is wonderful. Their scenes together crackle with electricity, and it's a joy to see this kind of male/female interaction where there is absolutely no hint of sexual attraction. The characters and situations are strong enough that this element is unnecessary.

It would have been easy for Soderbergh to have allowed Erin Brockovich to descend into manipulative melodrama, but he resists that path of least resistance. There are no big courtroom scenes, no over-the-top speeches, and no moments of tear-generating catharsis. Instead, this film is smart, savvy, funny, and, at times, poignant. The characters and situations are more vivid than those presented in most legal thrillers, and the fast-paced plot never loses the audience's interest. In short, Erin Brockovich is a winner - the kind of movie that viewers crave during such a bleak season of cinema. It's a reminder of the impact that a truly good motion picture can have.

Erin Brockovich (United States, 2000)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Coyote, Conchata Ferrell, Marg Helgenberger
Screenplay: Susannah Grant
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2000-03-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1