Judge Brendan Babish never realized how what an asset breasts were in fighting corporate malpractice.
She brought a small town to its feet and a large company to its knees.
In the year 2000 Steven Soderbergh had one of the best years ever for an American filmmaker. Perhaps trailing only Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 (The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation) and Steven Spielberg's 1993 (Jurassic Park and Schindler's List), Soderbergh directed both Traffic, which was denied its rightful Oscar by Gladiator, and Erin Brockovich, a drama that could best be described as A Civil Action with boobs.
Facts of the Case
Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts, Notting Hill has three young children, two ex-husbands, and no job. Out of desperation she begins working a menial desk position for Ed Masry (Albert Finney, Miller's Crossing), a small-time lawyer who represented her in an unsuccessful personal-injury lawsuit.
While filing a supposedly inconsequential pro-bono case, Erin discovers what seems to be a serious crime. She asks for, and receives, permission from Masry to pursue the matter, which involves PG & E, a powerful electric company, allegedly poisoning a small town's drinking water. As Erin digs deeper into the case, she discovers a multitude of tumors, cancers, and miscarriages in the local populace, all seemingly related to the drinking water. Also, the deeper she digs, the more damning the evidence seems against PG & E. However, the electric company has deep pockets and scores of lawyers, while Masry runs only a small law firm. For Brockovich the easy part was discovering a great crime, the difficulty is securing justice.
It doesn't happen very often, but some movies are so good you can just sit back without ever second guessing any creative decision. With poor, mediocre, even some good films, I often find myself wondering what actor might have been better cast, whether a plot twist made sense, or whether characters' decision are consistent with their personalities. Then there are the visual concerns: the composition of a shot, the set design, the wardrobe, etc. And of course, something as seemingly minor as an unwise musical choice can be devastating.
Erin Brockovich is one of those rare films that allows you to just sit back and just enjoy a well-crafted, well-told story. Now, it's not a perfect movie; it might not even be a great movie; but within the first few minutes it became apparent that Roberts (who won an Oscar for her performance) and Soderbergh (who was nominated for his direction) are at the top of their games here. Nothing bold or grandiose occurs within the film's first act, but the script, as well as Roberts and Finney, whose performance earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination, instantly strike the perfect note of wit and pathos, and maintain to the final scene.
What is so remarkable is that Erin Brockovich's themes—poverty, the law, corporate malfeasance—are so difficult to translate into engaging drama. A woman struggling to feed her kids may be tragic in real life, but often comes off as overwrought, overtly moral, or simply boring onscreen. Additionally, legal issues and corporate malfeasance can easily be confusing or tedious in a visual narrative. But Roberts and Soderbergh create such vibrant characters and strong visuals (the understated set design, beautiful scenery, and wardrobes are all fantastic) that you don't even notice how high the level of difficulty was in making this an engaging story.
However, the film's biggest asset is its screenplay. Susannah Grant's script unfolds naturally and with an unassuming ease. And while Erin could easily have come off as a brassy working class mother—something like Roseanne Barr with a little more sex appeal—Grant somehow imbues the character with intelligence and wit that doesn't seem at all contradictory with her natural coarseness. And though Masry as a character almost entirely exists to explain convoluted legal theory to Erin (and the audience), his kindly curmudgeonly personality makes him very endearing.
That said, the film is not perfect. Its running time, at well over two hours, is a little long. This could have been alleviated by cutting back on the weak storyline featuring Aaron Eckhart (sporting ridiculous facial hair and pony tail) as George, Erin's alternately unbelievable generous and shockingly unsupportive boyfriend. This relationship not only bogs down the far more engaging central plot, but also concludes in a very hasty and inexplicable manner.
Still, Erin Brockovich is a rock solid film: funny and affecting in equal measure, entertaining in its entirety. It may be not the flashiest or most experimental of Soderbergh's films, but it is still one of the best movies in his incredibly impressive canon.
Erin Brockovich is not a traditionally beautiful movie, but Soderbergh shot it with an almost incidental beauty that looks great on HD DVD. Most of the film takes place suburban California, with occasional forays in the sparsely populated desert. Though Soderbergh is far more restrained here than he would be in Traffic, he still manages to create striking rusty orange glows in the afternoon, and an enchanting blue incandescence in the evening. This is not a print that is going to blow you away, especially with such an engaging story to distract you from the visuals, but the colors are amazingly vibrant and the smallest details evident in great detail.
Erin Brockovich is a dialogue driven film, and not only are there very few sound effects, but the score is soft and restrained. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack handles these with ease and, while it isn't necessarily wasted on the film, it is a bit of overkill.
While it's unfortunate that Soderbergh didn't do a commentary track, the HD DVD does contain 30 minutes of deleted scenes, a great bonus for any fans of the film. Inexplicably, these scenes do feature commentary from Soderbergh. Additionally, there are two featurettes, the far stronger of which is "Spotlight on Location," which features interviews with the real Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry.
Erin Brockovich is such an enjoyable film it's easy to overlook the great work put in by its writer, director, and performers. While not nearly as challenging as many of Soderbergh's films, this movie is as accessible as his Ocean's movies and has the added bonus of depth.
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Scales of Justice
• Spotlight on Location: The Making of Erin Brockovich
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