Universal // 2000 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 30th, 2012
She brought a huge company to its knees.
"For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me."
Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman) is a single mother of three who struggles to come up with the money she needs to take care of her family. After she loses a personal injury lawsuit, she demands that her attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) provide her with a job as compensation. Ed reluctantly agrees, and Erin quickly transforms herself into of the law firm's most exasperating and ambitious employees. Sure, she disappears for days at a time without explanation, but she turns back up with crucial pieces of evidence for a potentially major case, so it all evens out.
Ed has taken on his fair share of major cases, but begins to have doubts about his ability to handle the latest assignment Erin has brought him: filing a suit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a corporation worth $28 billion. Are Erin and Ed capable of handling such a monumental task? Just as importantly, can Erin put in the work required of her without neglecting her family?
Much has been written about the diversity of Steven Soderbergh's filmography, a wildly inconsistent but generally compelling collection of films that includes hip crime comedies (Out of Sight, Ocean's Eleven), grim biopics (Che), goofy biopics (The Informant!), low-budget experiments (The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble, Gray's Anatomy), intense thrillers (Contagion, The Limey), action flicks (Haywire), old-fashioned noir (The Good German), science-fiction (Solaris)...the list goes on and on. Though I've enjoyed more of Soderbergh's stuff than I've disliked, it's always difficult to guess which version of Soderbergh we're going to get from film to film. The only thing that is guaranteed is that Soderbergh will work hard to prevent the film from feeling conventional. Of course there's an exception to every rule, and in Soderbergh's case the exception is Erin Brockovich.
I had somehow avoided the popular Julia Roberts vehicle in the decade or so following its initial release, but considering that Soderbergh was at the helm, I figured it simply couldn't be as generic as it looked. Sadly, this much-lauded legal drama is easily one of the director's least-inspired films, a by-the-numbers affair that unsuccessfully attempts to hide its banality in artful trappings. The whole affair is clothed with an elegant score from Thomas Newman (who had received an Academy Award nomination the previous year for his distinctive work on American Beauty) and gorgeous sepia-toned cinematography from Edward Lachman, but it's not enough to disguise the fact that Susannah Grant's screenplay is a mediocre attempt at crowd-pleasing drama, not an award-worthy examination of a complex subject.
The real-life Erin Brockovich is a fascinating subject worthy of a great film, but Soderbergh and Grant offer a curiously superficial take on her. While it's true that Brockovich was known to wear somewhat provocative clothing, Erin Brockovich transforms this small character quirk into a defining feature: Watch as Erin loses the confidence of a jury as she bares a great deal of cleavage! Watch as Erin gets important legal documents from a horny young government employee by baring a great deal of cleavage! Watch as Erin's co-workers grow angry and jealous because Erin walks around the office baring a great deal of cleavage! You get the idea. While I doubt the filmmakers intended to transform the person into little more than a sex object, by that's precisely what they've done by constantly emphasizing her risqué wardrobe choices (and giving her garish low-rent hooker costumes that would never be tolerated by even the most liberal-minded law firms). The film addresses the matter directly in a painful dialogue exchange between Erin and her employer.
Ed: "In a law firm, you may want to rethink your wardrobe a
Erin: "Well, as long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like if that's all right with you."
Now in any real-life scenario, Ed (assuming he was feeling particularly good-natured that day) might have said something like, "Look, Erin, you're free to wear what you like on your own time, but this is a business and we expect our employees to look professional. If you can't deal with that, you're free to look for an organization that is more tolerant of your fashion choices." But no, Ed hangs his head in shame and shuffles back to his office as Erin adds insult to injury by taking a parting shot at the quality of Ed's ties.
The film is even more unconvincing when it comes to dealing with Erin's personal life. Every scene involving Erin's kids (which are merely annoying plot devices rather than actual characters) and her increasingly irritable boyfriend George (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) feels agonizingly routine, momentum-killing moments that toss out one cliché after another. Ultimately, the film doesn't seem to care too much about whether Erin spends enough time with her kids (after all, she finally seems to come to the conclusion that as long as she can make enough money to afford a nanny, she can feel guilt-free about working as much as she wants -- a legitimate point-of-view), so why does it waste so much time brooding on a subject that it's just going to drop in the end? It's a shabby attempt at "character development" that detracts from the parts of the film which actually work (more on those in a moment).
Erin Brockovich (Blu-ray) has received a perfectly stellar 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that does a decent job of preserving Soderbergh's distinctive, orange-dominated palette (a visual technique he would employ more memorably and effectively in The Informant!). It's not quite dazzling, but the level of detail is consistently solid and blacks are effectively inky. While the picture could use a little more depth and pop at times, it's a decent transfer. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is sufficient but unremarkable, giving your speaker system little of note to do for most of the running time. Dialogue is clear and Newman's score is crisp, but there's no energy or immersiveness. Supplements include a quartet of featurettes ("Erin Brockovich: A Look at a Real-Life Experience," "Spotlight on Location: The Making of Erin Brockovich," "Academy Award Winners" and "The Lot"), some deleted scenes (with optional Soderbergh commentary), a trailer, a DVD Copy and a Digital Copy.
It would be unfair to call Erin Brockovich a complete failure, because there are moments in which things really do start clicking. Soderbergh has always been good about finding compelling ways to outline large chunks of technical information (consider the way he turns rather dry medical details into fascinating material through Contagion), and the film starts working whenever it focuses on the nitty-gritty details of the case Erin is working on. The film is quite good at outlining both the maddening difficulty of the case and the challenging task of keeping an increasingly large group of plaintiffs happy. There's a solid, crisp legal drama trapped inside this messy movie, and there's just enough that works to keep the film from becoming too tedious.
Additionally, while I'm certainly not one of Roberts' biggest admirers, she handles the material she's given about as well as can be expected. Is it an Oscar-worthy performance? No, it isn't. But it certainly isn't worthy of derision, and her solid chemistry with a jovial Albert Finney gives their scenes together a nice energy.
Erin Brockovich is one of Steven Soderbergh's least successful films. It's hardly a disaster, but it falls terribly short of its potential. Fans of the movie should be satisfied with this adequate hi-def release.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy