"Erin Brockovich"

A fascinating cache of deleted scenes proves Steven Soderbergh's talent for knowing when less is more and when it's merely less.

By Michael Sragow

Published November 6, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Erin Brockovich"
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart
Universal Studios; widescreen (1.85:1)
Extras: Making-of documentary, featurette on the real Erin Brockovich, deleted scenes with director comments, production notes

In the midst of post-production on "Erin Brockovich," I asked Steven Soderbergh what drew him to material that usually results in on-screen stiffs like "A Civil Action." All I knew about "Erin Brockovich" was the fact-based plot: A single mother of three gets a job in a law office and suddenly finds herself taking on a giant California power company for its contamination of a tiny desert town. The story line did not portend a foray into the pop avant-garde that Soderbergh had made his turf in "Out of Sight" and "The Limey."

Soderbergh agreed and asked, "So what?"

"'Erin Brockovich,'" he told me, "is going to be more like 'Norma Rae' than like 'A Civil Action,' and I think its tone will be generally funnier than 'Norma Rae.' 'Erin Brockovich' is a movie about a character. And I found her character fascinating." It turns out she was fascinating -- and the director had just the actress to put across her bristling contradictions.

Playing a bold sexual creature in a genteel professional world, an emotional mother and lover who throws herself headlong into her work and, to top it off, a social crusader, Julia Roberts shows off her gifts for anguish and empathy as well as for lowdown teasing comedy. Soderbergh predicted back in December, "It's different enough from Julia's most popular roles to showcase her range. But it's not so jarring that it will put off people who come to see a movie just for Julia Roberts." He was right. "Erin Brockovich" has been a huge hit theatrically and a record breaker as a DVD.

I'm including these quotes both to provide Soderbergh fans with additional details and to give an example of the concise, direct statements you don't always get on a DVD with "all the extras." Still, if the extras here aren't all top grade, there's enough juice in this movie to sustain even the obligatory on-location featurette and the perfunctory portrait of the real-life Erin Brockovich. Soderbergh and Roberts achieved a remarkable congruence between the actual Erin and the movie's Queen of Sass, and the minidocumentaries on this DVD back up the director's contention that the chance to do a reality-rooted character study is part of what attracted him to the project.

But the best stuff here is an array of deleted scenes and Soderbergh's explanations for the cuts. It all makes for a fascinating example of the playfulness and openness that this filmmaker can deliver to seemingly straight-line enterprises. He talks about juggling the needs for momentum, concision and depth while bringing the film down from its initial length of three hours and 15 minutes to two hours and 12 minutes. You see vibrant scenes with Mimi Kennedy and Cherry Jones go by the wayside, along with warm improvisations by Roberts and Aaron Eckhart (as Erin's lover) and the child actors who play Erin's kids, and a prize comic moment from Albert Finney as Erin's boss.

But you don't miss these scenes when you rewatch the film. Rather, you see how cutting them helped feed the movie's vitality and shape its keener climaxes. Soderbergh provides an appealingly modest and lucid demonstration of a director doing just what he should do in the editing room: trying to decide when less is more and when it's merely less. In the end, you see that he has turned subtraction into an art.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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