After being saddled with two less-than-stellar starring vehicles ("Notting Hill" and "Runaway Bride") in the past year, it is refreshing to see Julia Roberts back in fine form in "Erin Brockovich". In what could be classified as the first feel-good movie of the year, director Steven Soderbergh ("Out of Sight") dramatizes the real-life story of a twice-divorced mother of three who, despite her lack of legal experience, took on a $28 billion company and secured the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. In a first-quarter movie-going season that has thus far been dismal, "Erin Brockovich" is one film that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
I'm smart, I'm hard-working, and I'll do anything, and I'm not leaving here without a job... don't make me beg.
At the start of the film, the down-on-her-luck Erin Brockovich (Roberts) finds herself in dire financial straits after getting into a car accident. Despite the accident being the other driver's fault, her lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney of "Simpatico") fails to win her a settlement during the trial. With bills to pay and three children to feed, Erin puts herself at the mercy of her lawyer, and begs him for a job. Fortunately, Ed relents and Erin begins work at the law firm as a filing clerk.
Are you a lawyer?
Hell no, I hate lawyers. I just work for them.
After working a few weeks at the firm, Erin comes across a real estate file containing medical records. With her curiosity piqued, Erin convinces Ed to allow her to investigate the connection, and she treks out to the desert town of Hinkley. There she meets Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger of "Species 2"), a woman whose entire family has been stricken with serious medical problems. As Erin digs deeper into the medical histories of Donna and other residents of the town, she inadvertently discovers a corporate cover-up involving deaths linked to chromium-contaminated drinking water in the small town.
You're emotional, you're erratic, you make this personal, and it isn't!
That is my work, my sweat, my time away from my kids! If that isn't personal then I don't know what is!
Incensed by what she has found, Erin begins a crusade to make Pacific Gas & Electric accountable for the illness and death that they have caused. Driven by her own persistence and desire to seek justice for the townspeople, Erin goes door to door to sign up plaintiffs for a direct-action lawsuit against PG&E. However, not everyone shares Erin's enthusiasm to see justice done-- with PG&E being the largest employer in the area, Erin finds a number of townspeople leery of rocking the boat. Furthermore, there is some internal grumbling at the law firm, as a number of Erin's co-workers resent her outspoken personality and questionable style of dress. Finally, as a single mother, Erin finds it increasingly difficult to balance the demands of her work and her family-- the more time she spends on the road crusading, the more estranged she becomes from her children.
As long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like, if that's alright with you... and you might want to rethink those ties, Ed.
With "Erin Brockovich", Roberts has found her best role yet, as she is finally playing a fully realized character. In this latest film, Roberts actually carries the picture on her own-- in most of her better films from the past few years, such as "My Best Friend's Wedding", Roberts was better suited to reacting to the antics of other characters, instead of dominating the scene. And unlike some of the roles she has played in the past, such as in "Pretty Woman", Erin is not rescued in the third act by Prince Charming who comes galloping in on a white steed. Instead, she rescues herself with her own dogged determination and sweat-- definitely not your typical rags-to-riches story (interestingly enough, scribe Susannah Grant also wrote another 'unconventional fairy tale' called "Ever After"). While watching the film, I was reminded of Janet McTeer's Oscar-nominated performance in last year's "Tumbleweeds", who played up on the trailer trash sensibilities of character with enthusiasm and credibility. And while some may question a knockout Hollywood mega-star in the lead role, a cameo by the real Erin Brockovich as a waitress near the beginning of the film suggests that there is little exaggeration in terms of casting.
What makes you think you can walk in there and find what we need?
They're called boobs, Ed.
As the film's titular character, Roberts conveys the two conflicting sides of Erin, the playfully outspoken and sassy exterior, as well as the compassionate and sometimes insecure person underneath. Playing the outspoken side of the would-be crusader, Roberts gets some of the best lines in the film, as well as carrying a terrific running gag of Erin's outrageous office attire. In addition, Roberts is also able to convey the down-to-earth charm that her character exudes, a quality that allows Erin into the hearts and homes of the Hinkley residents. Furthermore, Roberts is able to show her range in the film's quieter and more introspective moments. One memorable scene has Roberts driving home after spending a few days away from her kids, and being told on her cell phone that her youngest daughter has just spoken her first words. Roberts' dialogue is minimal in this scene, but it is clear that her character is devastated by the personal toll that her career has taken.
I think we got off on the wrong foot.
That's all you got, lady. Two wrong feet and ugly shoes!
Supporting Roberts is a terrific cast. As Erin's boss, Finney shares a great chemistry with Roberts, as his character's passion for justice is rekindled by his outspoken filing clerk turned paralegal. A number of the film's memorable comic moments involve verbal sparring between Roberts and Finney, whose characters are perfect foils for each other. Aaron Eckhart acquits himself well as an unlikely and unemployed love interest for Erin, which is a nice change considering that his breakthrough role was playing a misogynistic corporate creep in Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men". Peter Coyote ("Random Hearts") has a memorable turn as a lawyer brought on to help the case, while Veanne Cox ("You've Got Mail") does a great job as Coyote's arrogant and aloof assistant.
For the first time in my life, I've got people respecting me... please don't ask me to give it up.
With "Erin Brockovich", Soderbergh may find some much-deserved mainstream success, which has so far eluded him. With outstanding performances by Roberts and Finney, an uplifting story that defies your usual legal thriller conventions, snappy dialogue, and Soderbergh's lively direction, this is one film that delivers what it promises. If you only see one film this month, this is the one!