“Whatever it takes to make someone a movie star, she’s got it.”
That’s what my friend says about Julia Roberts, and she’s exactly right. Roberts brings warmth and enthusiasm to Erin Brockovich, making it a much better movie than it might have been.
The Common Touch
R for language
A Civil Action, 1998, still another lawsuit movie, but one which is more melodramatic.
Erin Brockovich takes a new approach to the lawsuit movie. You might say it’s like The Insider without the serious tension, like A Civil Action without the laborious melodrama. What it has instead is the human touch that Roberts brings to it.
Erin Brockovich (Roberts) is unemployed and underskilled. She’s a single mother raising three kids, and she’ll take any kind of work she can get. Unfortunately, nobody will hire her.
Her Toyota gets sideswiped by a Jaguar, and her lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) nearly wins her a big settlement. But Erin does so badly on the stand — wearing too-revealing clothes and suggestive makeup, then shouting at the defendant — that she loses the case. Desperate and angry, she insists on a job from Masry, whom she blames for losing her case.
Roberts reuses her low-class, unpretentious persona from Pretty Woman. Erin’s gaudy and revealing outfits garner disapproving looks from the other women in the office, but she takes it all in stride. Being a poor, single mother of three has taught her how to ignore the bullies and respect the true friends.
Uncovering the cover-up
Erin notices something in one of Masry’s real estate cases that strikes her as odd. Medical records have gone back and forth between the buyer and seller of a piece of property. Instead of doing her job filing, she follows her curiosity. She gets Masry’s vague, off-hand permission to do some investigative work, and she heads to the small town where the property is being sold.
After a few days’ work making friends in the town, Erin realizes that something big is happening. Pacific Gas & Electric, a major California utility has been dumping industrial toxic chemicals into the water, and now they’re buying up every property in town to cover up what they’ve done.
Back at the office, Masry has fired Erin. He can’t remember giving her permission to investigate, and even if he had, he never would have let her spend three days on it. But Erin shows him the evidence she’s gathered and convinces him to take the case. Erin’s got such a winning way with people that she rallies the whole town to their common cause.
Albert Finney does a great job as Erin’s boss and friend Ed Masry. His character could have been a two-dimensional foil for Erin, but Finney knows when to play up to Roberts and when to stand back and watch. He knows this is Roberts’ movie and doesn’t try to fight it.
Julia Roberts singlehandedly makes this movie work. She has a great screen presence, and she brings emotion, sympathy, and strength to the role. One moment she’s telling her boss how to run his business, the next moment she’s reacting emotionally to a phone call about her youngest daughter’s latest accomplishment. (I mention the latter because many directors say that phone call scenes don’t work on screen, but Roberts proves them wrong.)
Some of Roberts’ “presence” comes from her cleavage. Some of the costumes are almost insulting, and even the audience was giggling at her appearance. But before long, Erin acknowledges that she dresses that way, sometimes on purpose. Because it was worked into the character (and even the plot), it wasn’t nearly as gratuitous or insulting as it first appeared.
The production design and art direction (by Philip Messina and Christa Munro) were surprisingly good. When you see a movie with Julia Roberts you expect money, polish, and refinement. But Erin Brockovich calls for an ambulance-chasing lawyer, a poor title character, and a small town too powerless to fight a utility company. Masry’s office looks like it was built in 1964, complete with dark wood paneling. Erin drives a dusty orange 15-year old car, and the poisoned town is just redneck enough to be convincing.
There is a subplot involving George (Aaron Eckhart), Erin’s biker neighbor. A minor romance develops between them. It’s not much, and it’s not relevant to the main story, but it is sweet. The movie probably spends a little too much time on their love and conflict, but at the end screenwriter Susannah Grant ties it nicely to the main story.
If you’re looking for the quirky Soderbergh touch, you can find it, although it’s not as noticeable as in The Limey or Out of Sight. There are appropriate shots from a low angle, or with handheld camera. The steady pace of information streaming in reads like a good crime drama. Also, the music has some character, some flavor, without being too obtrusive.
But really, Erin Brockovich is a mainstream Hollywood movie. The plot and the dialogue often seem formulaic, even though it is based on a true story. It may have a serious subject, but it is more entertaining than thought provoking.
So it is to Julia Roberts’ credit that she makes this formula, mainstream movie into something worth going to the theater for.