Culture » Film

Justice in a Mini-Skirt



*Erin Brockovich (R)
Universal Pictures

If this weren't such a good movie, I'd hate it.

The relentless marketing campaign almost ruined it for me -- the trailer with all the movies' punch lines trumpeted across television screens for months prior to release, fairly screaming: "Julia Roberts! Julia Roberts! Pretty Woman! Pretty Woman!"

Naturally, this is what studios do when they have paid the star a reported $20 million to appear in their film. Costs must be recouped after all, and what better way than to shout out the word that Julia Roberts is in your film, and this one marks her return to the flashy, big hair, low cleavage look of her most loved film, Pretty Woman.

Sitting in the theater, thoroughly engrossed in Erin Brockovich, I still resented the advertising campaign. As scenes and costumes changed, the sold-out crowd practically leaned forward in their seats, waiting for the now familiar lines to be spoken: "As long as I have one ass instead of two, I'm gonna wear what I like if that's all right with you. Oh, and you may want to rethink those ties. They're called boobs, Ed."

The theater exploded with laughter whenever the film hit a familiar marker.

Truth be told, Erin Brockovich didn't require the splashy oversell -- it's a movie that succeeds quietly, on its own merit, thanks largely to director Steven Soderbergh's (Out of Sight) sure hand, even with a diva like Roberts in front of the camera.

First strong point -- a knockout true story. In 1996, in a small Los Angeles law firm, a file clerk named Erin Brockovich came across information in a pro bono case's records that piqued her interest. Among real estate files, she found medical records and other information that led her to investigate further and find that Pacific Gas and Electric, a $28 billion utilities corporation, had systematically poisoned the community of Hinkley, California, by allowing hexavalent chromium, a pipe-cleaning agent, to infiltrate the ground water. Brash and toughened by hard knocks, outspoken Brockovich enlisted attorney Ed Masry in what became the largest direct-action legal settlement in American history, winning a $333 million award for their clients.

If the plot sounds identical to the John Travolta vehicle, A Civil Action, it is except for the fact that his was a class-action suit and this one was not. But this film is far superior to that one, largely because the main character is so much more appealing than the one played by Travolta. Brockovich does not sacrifice everything to win her case, as he did. In the end, she has gained not only newfound self-respect and money, but a renewed commitment to the stabilizer that motivated her throughout the long investigation -- her family. And unlike most legal dramas, including A Civil Action, this one avoids overblown, preachy courtroom scenes, opting instead to focus on the events behind the legal wrangling.

The real Erin Brockovich, who makes a cameo appearance in a diner scene, early in the film, actually dressed in spiked heels and micro-mini skirts as Roberts' character does in the film, so anyone who might be offended by the costuming should leave their arguments at home. Still, it reeks of exploitation and reinforces an idea many of us would just as soon have left behind in the last century -- if you want to succeed wildly in spite of lack of training, it helps to be gorgeous.

Luckily, Roberts transcends her wardrobe with a gritty performance, precise comic timing, a foul mouth and intense focus. Her Erin Brockovich is charismatic with a capital C. And just when you begin to tire of her spunk, there's a wonderful scene where she's sick with a cold and a wrenching cough. She stands at the back of a crowded meeting room, watching as Ed (Albert Finney) coaches the community members of Hinkley on the specifics of the lawsuit, her face growing darker and darker with concern as she feels her clients losing their trust and patience. Leaning against a doorframe, Roberts manages both to blend in and stand out, to project the tired, dark side of her character's struggle.

The impeccable casting of the two lead males -- Finney as Ed, Erin's partner in justice and comic foil; and Aaron Eckhart (In The Company of Men) as the biker next door who becomes Erin's trusted babysitter and lover -- further cements the film's success. Finney enjoys some of the best moments he's seen onscreen for years with his mischievous facial expressions and his blustery frustration with the ever-confrontational Erin. And Eckhart's natural bearing and low-key demeanor provide a strong balance to Roberts' inescapable star quality.

Soderbergh lights the film in sun-bleached sandy tones, adding to the bleak desert landscape of Hinkley, where much of the film was shot on location. Erin Brockovich is funny, lively and ultimately touching. The film ends on a wonderfully gentle note, with Roberts breaking the news to one of the cancer-ridden clients in the lawsuit that she will receive more than $3 million in damages from PG&E. The two women look as though they are genuinely friends, and the scene makes the point that without Erin, the lawsuit would never have happened, and the people of Hinkley would simply have been forgotten. It's a rare moment of humanity and genuine community, captured on film quietly and with great dignity.

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