Erin Brockovich
Top Ten List: #5 of 2000 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #8 of 2000 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Coyote, Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, Conchata Ferrell. Screenplay: Susannah Grant.

Photo © 2000 Jersey Films/Universal Pictures
Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich, like Wolfgang Petersen's The Perfect Storm, another blockbuster from the year 2000 which might otherwise seem totally dissimilar, represents genre filmmaking so technically proficient and tonally inviting that the film seems better than it is. Make no mistake that you probably know where Erin Brockovich is headed from the moment the movie begins, if not from the second you purchase your ticket. Fine. What is thrilling and celebratory about the movie, though, is how it gets there. If character-driven underdog parables that satisfy both dramatically and comedically were as easy to make as Erin's detractors have suggested, wouldn't it be easier to name more than two or three, without reaching back at least ten years?

Julia Roberts stars as Erin Brockovich, in a performance that raises that verb "stars" to a whole new level. Her work as Erin is an uncanny, dazzling unison of acting chops and marquee charisma. Roberts, like Meg Ryan, only seems like a one-trick pony of romantic comedies because the public has proven ridiculously stalwart in avoiding both women's edgier, more surprising projects. Then again, as underratedly effective as Roberts has been in dramas like Mary Reilly, she has never had the chance to raise the level of her acting in a picture that felt wholly coherent (Mary Reilly was many things, but not that), or one for which her fans could buy a ticket without too much arm-twisting. In terms of her career, then, Erin Brockovich is a watershed, a compelling vehicle for a forceful, emotionally direct portrayal that at the same time does not pretend we are not watching Julia Roberts. Part of Erin's problem or, more charitably, her ambivalence as a character is that she wants to be considered attractive but hates being patronized. She wants people to love her but refuses to act lovable. Roberts' persona matches perfectly with those circumstances, and she nails them both, making Erin smart, sincere, and believably, recklessly cavalier, while at the same time making every other star in Hollywood, male and female, seem like a dim, compromised imitation of her own redoubtable wattage.

Paean finished, at least to the star. Thankfully, there is plenty more to appreciate in Erin Brockovich—which, before I forget to tell you, follows the efforts of an underqualified, unsophisticated, but razor-sharp and impeccably committed legal assistant to expose a public-health crisis fostered by a California utility provider. For years, the company's plants have been leaking chromium into the water table of unsuspecting neighborhoods, where Erin comes to discover rates of cancer, miscarriage, and other severe medical problems have been inordinately high. Even as Erin becomes an unwitting public crusader, however, she is constantly distracted by the need to keep her job, despite her quickly ignited temper and vague understanding of office rules; by the responsibility of caring for three young children without a father or assistant at home; by the mostly unwanted romantic advances of George (Aaron Eckhart), a motorcycle enthusiast and sometime construction worker who lives next door; and by the fact that no one, because of her demeanor, her proudly flaunting attire, and her paltry résumé, is ever inclined to take her seriously—not the first time they meet her, and frequently not the second or third time, either.

It is both true and untrue, then, to say that Erin Brockovich is derivative of films we've seen before. Sure, there's a little Civil Action here, some Silkwood, even some Pretty Woman. Not only, though, is Erin's plight a lot more serious than Nasty Clerks Who Won't Let Her Shop, the whole film manages to combine its familiar ingredients into a package with almost no odor of redundancy. Partly, the movie's freshness springs from the way Susannah Grant's screenplay forces us to respect Erin and identify with her without demanding that we like her, or approve all of her decisions. Sure, Grant stoops to conquer with a few tart one-liners that play just that way: as scripted wit, not witty conversation. Still, Erin can not only be a little dizzy and a little preoccupied; she can be mean. The way she goes after a pale, businesslike female lawyer working for PG&E demonstrates just as much sexism as the treatment she herself receives from other people.

The other reason Erin Brockovich holds together so well, and sweeps the dust off the storyline's age-old skin, is director Steven Soderbergh, whose work here is almost as revelatory as his star's. In the last two years, Soderbergh has made an arrestingly warm and sensual cop story Out of Sight) and an impressively chilly, cubist revenge drama (The Limey). Both screenplays in themselves are probably less accomplished and less unique than Soderbergh's confident direction and amazing coaxing of his actors made them look. At the same time, he leaned heavily on certain distancing techniques—ostentatiously scrambled editing, self-consciously retro aesthetics, even The Limey's recycled-footage stunt—that carefully prompted us to watch Soderbergh crafting his babies. Never before Erin Brockovich has he thrown himself so directly into the emotional immediacy of a piece, and he generates a much more welcoming, accessible crowd-pleaser than anyone might reasonably have expected.

Wisely, just as he steers his actors away from sentiment, he cautions his technicians from polishing too much; Edward Lachman's cinematography, Philip Messina's sets, and Jeffrey Kurland's costumes look good, but are not good-looking, so the film feels as gritty as Erin would want. Less nuanced is Thomas Newman's score, which is serviceable, but too willing to recycle themes from his American Beauty and Shawshank Redemption successes. Finally, even Soderbergh can't quite manage to make the Erin-George romance feel less like an obligatory love plot, although the actors have some nice, nervy seduction scenes, and it's a treat to see Eckhart sprung from playing all those cads and losers he churns out for Neil LaBute.

Once you start scouring Erin Brockovich for clichés, you're fairly assured of finding more—it's a risk inevitable for a film as committed as this one is to pleasing a lot of people, and I'm therefore not interested in complaining about it. Still, in any art, there is considerable craft in making the oldest patterns work, and this movie has craft to burn. I am amazed that I haven't even said anything yet, seven paragraphs into this review, about Albert Finney's salty, thoroughly winning turn as Ed Masry, the lawyer who is Erin's boss but feels increasingly like her partner. It is a testament to Erin Brockovich that, despite predictable material, it excites the kind of enthusiasm that makes its pleasures seem new, and innumerable. (Remarkably, they seem just as "new" on a second viewing, when the film as a whole, if anything, improves.) If the film enjoys victories on Oscar night, as many believe it will, those trophies will almost certainly come at the expense of more deserving films that advance the art of movie-making more than Erin Brockovich does. A victory for Roberts, who returns the star system to its good name, is the exception—I'd have no compunction about voting for her now—but in every case, it is hard, particularly in such a dismal year, to begrudge Erin Brockovich anything. In an era where movies often forget to have feelings, this film is full of them, and it mainlines all of them straight to its deservedly grateful audience. A–

(in May 2000: B+)

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Steven Soderbergh
Best Actress: Julia Roberts
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Finney
Best Original Screenplay: Susannah Grant

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Steven Soderbergh
Best Actress (Drama): Julia Roberts
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Finney

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actress (Roberts); Best Supporting Actor (Finney)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director (Soderbergh; also cited for Traffic)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Director (Soderbergh; also cited for Traffic); Best Actress (Roberts)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Director (Soderbergh; also cited for Traffic)
National Board of Review: Best Director (Soderbergh; also cited for Traffic); Best Actress (Roberts)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actress (Roberts)

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