June 4, 2000
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart
She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees, says the ad line of Erin Brockovich. However, don’t expect this film to bring you to your feet.
The story of a divorced mother of three taking on a giant company and extracting from it the biggest-ever settlement in a direct-action lawsuit in the US may be gripping stuff, but not in Erin Brockovich. In a meandering effort that lasts two-and-a-half hours, about the only uplift is provided by Erin’s (Julia Roberts) colourful bras.
And if it’s not her cleavage on display, it’s Roberts’s long, long legs. Almost everything in Erin’s wardrobe starts an inch down her breast and ends five inches above the knees. The hooker Roberts played in Pretty Woman dressed more sensibly than this. Popping out of her clothes and perched precariously on matching six-inch heels, Roberts gets to order and insult people around. In fact, starting from her boss, the rest of the cast is either there to bear her boorishness or be the subject of her sympathies and her million-dollar smile.
Erin Brockovich doesn’t begin this badly. A down-on-luck divorcee and mother of three, Erin has just been turned down for another job. Before she has finished worrying about that, a doctor bangs into her car, leaving her with a neck brace and $17,000 in debt. Erin sues the doctor, with Ed Masry (Finney) as her lawyer, but a mix of her dress and her language nixes her case. Now, she has $74 in her bank account and no money to pay for a meal. The next-door woman she used to leave her kids with is also planning to move out.
Erin tries at first to get any kind of a job, but when all she hears are rejections, she lands in crusty old Masry’s office and forces him into employing her. Masry’s office is as frumpy as him and Erin, in her transparent shirts and leather skirts, is completely out of place. None of the girls likes her. However, the desperate Erin learns not to mind that.
So far, director Steven Soderbergh, known for films like sex, lies and videotape and Out of Sight, has complete control on Erin Brockovich. We can look beyond the wardrobe and the hair, and sympathise with Erin’s problems and despair. She tells off an admirer by telling him the ages of her three children and the number of times she has been married and divorced. Every evening when she walks home to the babysitter, perched on those ludicrous shoes again, one can feel the weight on her shoulders of raising three kids alone.
But then Erin finds a purpose, Soderbergh loses his, and Julia Roberts the star completely takes over. Told to do filing of cases at Masry’s office, Erin stumbles upon an interesting one involving real estate. Curious, Erin digs around and finds that a major public utilities company called Pacific General and Electricals has been poisoning an entire town’s water supply with hexavalent chromium. Men, women and children have been left fighting numerous tumours, chronic nosebleeds, headaches and other ailments.
Erin starts nosing around, meeting the victims and building a case. Surprisingly, the town that is wary of taking on PG&E thinks nothing of opening its heart to a woman who looks like Erin. There’s much of a superstar calling on admiring commoners in Roberts’s visits to the victims’ houses. A pat on the head here, a holding of a hand, a hug there. When that doesn’t work, she brings along her three children, always carrying the youngest in her arms to complete the wholesome picture.
No one is allowed to take the shine off Roberts. Her women colleagues at the law firm are overweight and poorly dressed. Another colleague from a partner law firm, dressed in a grey suit, is shown to be an uptight, cold snob. And Erin tells her pretty much that, just because the poor lady happens to ask for the phone numbers of the victims. You see Erin, the compassionate and passionate one, knows all the 684 of them by heart.
Finney, a charmer himself in his old films, wears boring striped shirts. Still, he is a good foil for Erin’s loud-mouthed brazenness. From being visibly embarrassed at her outbursts, the lovable old lawyer develops a grudging admiration for her. Even Erin’s boyfriend for a while, George (Eckhart), is a complete washout. A member of a biker gang who rides a Harley Davidson, he gives it all up to nursemaid Erin’s three children. While the sight of him carrying the kids, hanging on to Erin’s frock at a barbecue and looking wistfully at bikers zip past is funny, it is hard to believe. Eckhart anyway has far too much hair and too many tattoos to make any kind of impression.
Soderbergh, therefore, had to retain interest on the strength of Roberts alone, especially as we all know how this story ends. But except for flashes — like a woman rushing to get her children out of the swimming pool on knowing about the extent of PG&E’s betrayal — the film seems to be just dragging along in the middle. There are similar shots of Erin pulling into similar driveways, and at least three scenes of her flashing her cleavage to get documents out of the local water board. The real Erin Brockovich puts in a cameo as a waitress.
Roberts at least has nothing to complain. The prima donna of frothy roles, she gets to play an ex-beauty queen, a single mother, and show brains here. It’s a meaty role, full of Oscar potential. So what if she is preaching from a six-inch pedestal? Roberts hardly ever gets to climb onto any kind of stage. And she makes the most of it. Her comic timing and spunk at a meeting with PG&E lawyers, where Erin launches a one-woman assault leaving the other side speechless, are delightful.
However, Roberts only ever makes you laugh here. She never gets you to admire Erin Brockovich. But that’s as much Soderbergh’s failing as hers.
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