"Erin Brockovich"

In this sexy, exciting legal drama, Steven Soderbergh delivers his most straightforward movie -- and Julia Roberts her best performance.

Published March 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There has long been a flinty side to Julia Roberts, an edge of impatient, cutting intelligence that the crowd-pleasing movies she has often chosen to make haven't been able to contain or smooth over. In last year's "Runaway Bride" it was easy enough to believe that someone of Roberts' independent disposition would balk at the prospect of marriage. But when the movie shifted into the damnable therapeutic mode that has taken over romantic comedy, the picture fell apart. You couldn't believe for an instant that Roberts suffered from low self-esteem, that she would ever say or do less than exactly what she meant. The slight awkwardness that made Roberts' coltish beauty touching in her early films was long ago replaced by a self-aware confidence that is inimical to an era when most big roles for women play on magazine-article notions of women's insecurities rather than their capabilities. Sometimes, watching Roberts try to shoehorn herself into contemporary soft-as-slippers entertainment, I've thought it a pity she wasn't a star in the '30s, a tougher-minded time that would have known exactly what to do with her.

So it's no wonder that in the title role of "Erin Brockovich," the best she's ever had, Roberts is in a direct line of descent from the feisty, smart -- and smart-talking -- roles once epitomized by Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck was the most quintessentially American actress because she was the most direct. Incapable of coyness (except as a ruse) or of hiding her brains or self-assurance, Stanwyck cut through all the crap that stood in her way. She got you immediately on her side.

From the opening to the perfect final shot, Roberts is in nearly every scene of "Erin Brockovich," and there isn't a second when we're not on her side. This enormously satisfying picture, directed by Steven Soderbergh from Susannah Grant's terrific script, is the true story of a single mother who uncovered evidence that resulted in Pacific Gas and Electric, the huge utility company, being ordered to pay the largest damages in any direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.

The first time we see Erin she's applying for a job in a doctor's office, putting on a show of being cheerful and eager to learn, hoping it can make up for her lack of experience. Beneath that
fagade Roberts conveys Erin's resentment at having to play nice and beg for what amounts to the chance to sit and answer phones all day. And the moment it becomes clear she won't get the job, the pretense crumbles, and her resentment comes to the surface. Up against it as Erin is, with three kids to feed, no job and a two-digit bank account, Roberts constantly eschews weariness for impatience. Erin isn't stupid and she's willing to work, but nobody will give her a chance.

When Erin gets screwed in a lawsuit she brought against a doctor who ran a red light and injured her, she marches right into the office of Ed Masry (Albert Finney), the attorney who'd told her everything would be all right, and demands a job. Her boldness pays off, and she's hired as a file clerk. While doing this job, which is little more than Ed's way of getting rid of her, Erin finds a discrepancy that arouses her curiosity and sets in motion a staggering discovery. At its station in the desert town of Hinkley, Calif., PG&E has poisoned the groundwater by dumping lethal doses of hexavalent chromium. As a result, residents of the town are riddled with cancer, and as Erin gets to know them through her own footwork, she pushes Ed to bring a lawsuit on their behalf that, if it doesn't succeed, could ruin his small firm.

Neither Roberts nor the filmmakers sentimentalize Erin's sense of feeling valued, of being thought of as smart for the first time in her life. For her, it's simply a matter of finally being accorded the respect she has always been denied and knows she deserves. Roberts plays Erin's acceptance of that newfound respect without a trace of narcissism or false heroism. And that's why she's a true hero. "Erin Brockovich" isn't (thank God) a redemption movie for the simple reason that Erin doesn't need redemption. What happens to her is that all of her instincts and experience finally count for something. But she has lived a life far too full of bad breaks to ever see the people in Hinkley as merely a means to an end. Unlike her co-workers in the law office, the folks she encounters in the desert town don't look at her and see a bimbo wearing high heels and push-up bras that peek out of her skimpy tops. To the movie's credit Erin doesn't spruce up and stop wearing the cheap flashy clothes she knows she looks sexy in. It's as if Soderbergh is inviting us to make the same mistake everyone else does and underestimate Erin because of the way she looks.

As Michelle Pfeiffer once was, and as George Clooney is, Roberts is a movie star who has often been underestimated because of the way she looks. And because of that, she has a natural affinity with Erin. There may be people who don't respond to Roberts' smile, but I'm not sure I'd ever want to have a drink with them. In many of the romantic comedies she has made, her natural winning quality has been put at the service of something soft and soppy. "Erin Brockovich" gives Roberts the chance to marry her audience rapport to a performance that doesn't cancel out her gutsiness. And Roberts goes at the role with hungry confidence. The more determined Erin is, and the tougher she is, the more you cheer her.

Erin won't allow anything to get in her way, not even her relationship with her biker boyfriend, George, the first decent man she has had in her life. Their conflict divides you. (He's played by Aaron Eckhart, free of the clutches of that joyless creep, director Neil LaBute, in an effortlessly charming performance.) You don't want her to lose this burly, inviting guy, but you're so caught up in her work that you understand why she has to risk it.

Roberts has a knockout of a scene in which she's driving back from working the case late one night, talking to George on the phone as he tells her that her infant daughter spoke her first words that day. It's a scene you can imagine conceived to play either as a conventional sop to a mother's guilt over neglecting her role or as a soapbox platitude that attempts to deny any guilt. Roberts confounds both readings. At first she bursts into tears -- of sadness at missing her daughter speaking for the first time, and of sheer joy at the thought of it. And then she breaks into that radiant grin, and you know that Erin can live with the sadness of missing it, that the fact of its happening will have to be enough for her. I can't think of any movie scene to compare this one to. At the same time, Roberts suggests both a woman who's a bundle of emotions and a woman who's as comfortable with who she is as John Wayne is in "Rio Bravo."

As the movie goes on, Erin's heroism comes from the authority she commands. Exasperated by her candor, Ed exclaims, "You say any goddamned thing that comes into your head." He's wrong. Erin takes people aback because she says the pertinent thing. Just as Stanwyck did, Roberts cuts right through the bull. The script contains a number of scenes in which Erin stands up to PG&E's flunky lawyers and to the hotshot attorney (Peter Coyote) Ed hires to assist with the lawsuit, and Roberts never gives in to the temptation to grandstand. Nor does she ever give in to the temptation to become mushy or condescending in her scenes with the people she persuades to join the lawsuit. Even Roberts' compassion is hard-edge here. She's thrilling.

One of the movie's wittiest touches is that in taking on PG&E, Ed gets a taste of the treatment that has been dished out to Erin for years. When the utility company dispatches a young lawyer to offer a paltry settlement -- he looks as if he doesn't even shave yet -- Ed senses his contempt just by the way the pup gazes at the firm's seedy offices. Finney's performance is remarkably generous. Just as Ed's faith in Erin is a gamble that pays off, so is the way Finney cedes center stage to Roberts. He's her foil but never her patsy.

The sparring relationship between Roberts and Finney is a naturalistic version of a classic screwball comedy setup: Finney's Ed, like Clark Gable's boss in "It Happened One Night," is the harried head man who can't help loving the go-for-broke daring of his most talented employee. The exasperated affection that Erin and Ed share is all the stronger for never being stated. Their head butting is the movie's truest love match. Finney uses the bulk he has acquired over the years to convey Ed's authority, and he is wonderful whenever he finds himself at a comic loss, realizing that Erin is utterly unimpressed by that authority.

But Finney isn't simply there for Roberts to score points off of. He's the epitome of those exasperating bosses who are nonetheless smart enough to allow good people free rein, the type of person you secretly love even if you want to throttle him or her half the time. We come to respect him for the same reason Erin does -- not because he's the boss, which is no reason to respect anybody, but because of the common sense he shows. Ed isn't pigheaded, and he's able to think on his feet. Caught up in the whirlwind that is Erin, he has the grace and good sense to realize he'd better keep up with her.

"Erin Brockovich" has the built-in appeal of seeing the little guys sticking it to a corporation. And yet there isn't a scene that feels predictable. Grant's script contains exactly one courtroom scene. The story of the lawsuit is told in the most personal way: through the expectations of the people who have staked their hopes on it and through the fears of Erin and Ed, who stand to lose everything if they fail. Grant ("Ever After") writes precise dialogue that doesn't sacrifice the give-and-take of real people speaking to each other. With the exception of one sappy moment between Erin and her young son when the movie goes soft, each scene advances the story without talking down to the audience by spelling things out. (Director Ernst Lubitsch once advised writers, allow the audience to add up two plus two and they'll love you forever.)

The most straightforward piece of direction Soderbergh has ever done, "Erin Brockovich" has none of the tricky, jumbled time scheme he used in "Out of Sight" or "The Limey." But his work is much too distinctive to be mistaken for that of a hired hand. In some ways Soderbergh is as impatient as his heroine. He tells the story on the move. He adores jump cuts, shifting camera angles, anything to keep a scene hopping. And yet, overall, the movie suggests that Soderbergh is moving toward that place where craft becomes invisible.

The meanings Soderbergh wants to convey here have saturated the movie's texture: This is surely one of the canniest and most accurate films about American working-class life ever. And it couldn't have come at a better time. Even those of us who are doing OK financially may feel a little alienated when we turn on the evening news and hear the booming economy talked of as if it were a pervasive, incontrovertible fact. (And in an election year, the claims are only going to get bigger.) Without forcing a thing, without anybody making any speeches, Soderbergh shifts you back to the realities that kind of rhetoric can't contain: that for some people, something as simple as their child's cough is enough to get them wondering if this is the thing that will wipe out their finances.

Working with brilliant cinematographer Ed Lachman (who also shot "The Limey"), Soderbergh presents the artifacts of working-class life with a matter-of-factness that neither turns them into kitsch, looks down on them, nor revels in drabness as a badge of integrity. The details of Erin's scrubby little house, and the houses of the people of Hinkley, feel right on the money, bearing both what writer Karal Ann Marling once called "the scars of living ... the marks of hard use" and the comforts people adopt to smooth over those scars. Soderbergh doesn't romanticize the working class. He's willing to let his characters be people like any others, succumbing to the same petty slights and snobberies as anyone.

In his recent pictures, Soderbergh's trademark has become indelible actors' moments. As the first woman to join the lawsuit, Marg Helgenberger has one that rocks you back on your heels. While trying to keep denying Erin's persuasive claim that PG&E lied about the safety of the town's water, Helgenberger suddenly leaps up and orders her daughter out of the pool. It's a comic moment at which you don't dare laugh; the way Helgenberger suddenly gives in to her worst fears completely blurs the line between hysteria and common sense.

It's hard to imagine that "Erin Brockovich" won't be the hit it deserves to be. And it's certainly more proof that Soderbergh continues to bring to mainstream filmmaking a revitalizing level of craft and inventiveness. (A friend of mine referred to him recently as "the hip Howard Hawks.") I wish I didn't suspect that after the initial burst of good reviews, we're in for the critical backlash that's inevitable whenever a director who has been a critics' favorite makes a thoroughly accessible picture.

There's an ugly free-floating hostility in some critical circles right now that equates the emotionally accessible with the artistically reactionary. The spate of good movies and fascinating, ambitious failures in the last months of 1999 prompted all sorts of talk about American movies being at the dawn of a new renaissance of filmmaking. The talents of the best young filmmakers out there may yet make that true, just as an earlier generation of directors made it true in the '70s. On the other hand, if this new era of cinema is represented by "Fight Club," who needs it?

The trouble with all the anticipatory talk of a new era of filmmaking is that it makes it both easy and fashionable for critics to dismiss movies that are accessible, as if accessibility were the same thing as tired formula. The critics who complained that David O. Russell's sensational "Three Kings" grew conventional in the second half missed how the film uses the form of a classic adventure to express new attitudes and realities. There's no reason that pictures in a familiar form or genre can't still be satisfying if they are made with craft and taste, like "The Cider House Rules," the loveliest example of classical Hollywood filmmaking in years.

I'm waiting to see which nitwit will be the first to dismiss "Erin Brockovich" because things actually turn out well, or because it reminds him or her of "Norma Rae" or "A Civil Action" and, well, doesn't that mean it has been done? But "Erin Brockovich" reminds you that what makes a movie good boils down to the choices that have gone into it. A subject may be familiar, but our emotional response can be wholly fresh if the execution is fresh. It would be the ultimate irony if some critics made the same mistake about this movie that the characters in it make about its heroine -- dismissing "Erin Brockovich" because they judge by appearance and decide they've seen this type before.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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