Twice-divorced single mother of three Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) has no money, no job, no prospects and, to make matters worse, is injured in a car accident. Unable to win her lawsuit on account of a disastrous performance in court, Erin coerces lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) into providing a job at his law firm where her sassy manner and saucy attire ruffle a few feathers. Intrigued by a suspicious real estate case involving the Pacific Gas & Electricity Company, Erin uncovers an alarming conspiracy over contaminated water that has caused a devastating illness among local residents. Encouraged by big-hearted biker boyfriend George (Aaron Eckhart), Erin’s tenacity, resourcefulness and genuine concern for unjustly wronged ordinary folk enables her to rally the locals and her sceptical colleagues into taking on a corporate giant.
Based on a true story (look out for a cameo from the real Erin Brockovich as a waitress named Julia!), the Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich melds the quirky nuance and depth of American independent cinema with an old fashioned Hollywood star vehicle. Julia Roberts must have leapt for joy the moment she read Susannah Grant’s script. Her character is in every scene. Her actions drive the plot forward. It is the kind of role that has Oscar-nomination stamped all over it. Roberts rose to the challenge and knocked it out of the park with a faceted performance that is by turns gutsy, abrasive, vivacious, affecting and really rather sexy. But is there any more to Erin Brockovich as a movie beyond its barnstorming central performance? You betcha.
Equal parts detective story, conspiracy drama and tragicomic character study, the film achieves a pleasing balance between the social outrage aspect of its story and what was once termed a “woman’s picture.” Erin’s tentative romance with affable biker George and her struggle balancing family life with her increasingly arduous crusade prove just as compelling as her battle with PG&E. In fact the romantic relationship bears favourable comparison with the one between Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). In a strange way Erin Brockovich is also akin to a western. Westerns are about community. A lone hero rides in and rallies the townsfolk to right an injustice. In doing so they grow to feel part of the community. While on the surface the film seems like it is all about Erin uncovering PG&E’s crimes, it is actually about the community learning to see past the trashy clothes and hot-temper to admire this smart, brave and compassionate heroine. Those qualities of her’s that rub folks up the wrong way prove exactly the sort necessary to see justice was done. Some critics attacked what they perceived to be a certain calculated fairytale naivety, in common with Grant’s past scripts for Pocahontas (1995) and Ever After (1996), though she also wrote underrated chick flick In Her Shoes (2005) and went on to direct the offbeat comedy-drama Catch and Release (2006). But the fact remains this remarkable true story reached the screen with almost no alterations.
The film benefits from Steven Soderbergh’s staccato direction which draws out the wry ironies latent in Grant’s screenplay including the deliciously subtle joke about Erin being the one beauty queen to make good on her pageant pledge to make the world a better place. It is also something of buddy movie. Erin’s relationship with Ed Masry is its beating heart and Albert Finney gives another towering performance that exudes warmth. Also not to be overlooked are strong turns from Marg Helgenberger as a victim of PG&E’s heinous crimes and Tracey Walter as the whistleblower whom Erin - along with we the audience - amusingly mistake for a stalker.
Versatile American writer, director and producer whose Sex Lies and Videotape made a big splash at Cannes (and its title has become a cliche). There followed an interesting variety of small films: Kafka, King of the Hill, noir remake The Underneath, Schizopolis (which co-starred his ex-wife) and Gray's Anatomy.
Then came Out of Sight, a smart thriller which was successful enough to propel Soderbergh into the big league with The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Oscar-winning Traffic and classy remake Ocean's 11. When Full Frontal and his Solaris remake flopped, he made a sequel to Ocean's 11 called Ocean's 12, material he returned to with Ocean's 13. Che Guevara biopics, virus thriller Contagion and beat 'em up Haywire were next, with the director claiming he would retire after medication thriller Side Effects and Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. He returned after a period of even greater activity with heist flick Logan Lucky and his first horror, Unsane.