Screenplay : Susannah Grant
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Albert Finney (Ed Masry), Aaron Eckhart (George), Marg Helgenberger (Donna Jensen), Cherry Jones (Pamela Duncan), Veanne Cox (Theresa Dallavale), Peter Coyote (Kurt Potter), Scotty Leavenworth (Matthew), Conchata Ferrell (Brenda), Gemmenne De la Pena (Katie), Tracey Walter (Charles Embry)
There are but a handful of actresses who could have pulled off the role of the real-life busty, feisty, and determined heroine crusader of "Erin Brockovich." However, of that handful, it is quite probable that only Julia Roberts could have truly brought a shine to a character who is so potentially dislikable.
Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Susannah Grant test Erin's limits of likability numerous times throughout the first 20 minutes, as she verbally assaults every other character at one moment or another. An early courtroom scene is designed to introduce her to her eventual partner, a gruff, no-nonsense, but ultimately soft attorney named Ed Masry (Albert Finney), but it is also designed to show what a short fuse Erin has when she explodes in a torrent of profanity in the courtroom.
Erin, the film makes clear early on, is no sentimental crusader. Rather, she is a tough, hard-nosed cookie who has taken too much emotional abuse in her life to put up with anything. Erin's heavily hair-sprayed coiffure, impeccable make-up, and infamously revealing tank tops and tight mini skirts is her armor. An uneducated, twice-divorced, single mother of three who is constantly searching for work, Erin is adrift in a hard world, and she makes use of everything at her disposal, including her body. When told that she might be making her co-workers uncomfortable with her flashy and revealing wardrobe, she replies that it makes her feel good because she knows she looks good.
It is important that the filmmakers establish this drive and attitude, because it is precisely these characteristics, coupled with Erin's oft-hidden humanity and underutilized intellect, that will eventually make her successful where others had failed (or simply not tried). "Erin Brockovich" is, ultimately, about how, in the mean world of multinational corporations and lawyers, you have to be both humane and inhumane. It is Erin's empathy that gets her involved, and her snappish, no-nonsense devotion that gets her victory.
The case in which Erin becomes involved is centered around a large electrical plant run by Pacific Gas and Electric on the edge of the small southern California town of Hinkley. Erin is a low-level filing clerk in Ed Masry's law office when she begins to wonder why medical records are being filed with real estate records. A little digging uncovers the beginnings of an endless stream of Hinkley residents with various medical conditions--cancer, disintegrating spinal cords, brain damage--all of which are symptoms of poisoning by hexavalent chromium, which PG&E used as an anti-rust agent in their cooling towers. The case is especially odious because PG&E knew exactly what it was doing, and it even went so far as to inform that residents of Hinkley that were was chromium in their drinking water. However, the company lied about what kind of chromium it was (apparently other variations are beneficial to the human body).
Thus, "Erin Brockovich" is set up as a one-woman crusader movie that pits its blue-collar heroine against an endless line of corporate suits. The film's dichotomy of blue collar good / white collar bad is a bit simplistic and irritating at times, especially when Masry brings in two corporate lawyers (Peter Coyote and Veanne Cox) to help them on the case and the film focuses on showing on how Erin's uneducated determination is both more effective legally and more beneficial morally than all the law school training in the world.
There are a few weak spots in "Erin Brockovich," especially the subplot involving Erin's relationship with George (Aaron Eckhart), her next-door neighbor. George is a bulging, long-haired Harley Davidson type who, like Erin, hides a heart of gold beneath his tough exterior. He becomes Erin's rock by staying home with her children while she fights the good fight against PG&E. Of course, as such a narrative demands, George eventually becomes weary of being alone and neglected while Erin pours all of her energy into lives other than her own, and this is a source of friction that, frankly, the story doesn't really need. Despite an interesting, if somewhat too-obvious, reversal of genders (after all, it is usually the abandoned wife, such as Sissy Spacek in "JFK," who feels neglected), the subplot about George feels like something inserted by a screenwriting software program that demands a romantic angle.
Otherwise, "Erin Brockovich" is solid entertainment with a slight twist. For the last 10 years, director Soderbergh has moved fluidly between experimental, independent filmmaking, such as "Kafka" (1993) and "Schizopolis" (1996) and more mainstream movies like the Elmore Leonard crime comedy "Out of Sight" (1997). Soderbergh was an ideal choice for "Erin Brockovich" because he gives it an added spice that another director might not have allowed. There are small, aesthetic flourishes, like jump cuts, that are not usually used in the genre. But, it is also his willingness to let Erin's character move through all her many phases--to let her be both a bitch and a saint--that gives the film its edge.
Unfortunately, most writings about "Erin Brockovich" (including this one) focus heavily on the stellar star performance of Julia Roberts, which means that Albert Finney's wonderful role as Ed Masry is likely to be under-praised. Granted, Roberts is the heart and soul of the film, but Finney is ultimately what makes it work. Part of the time he is Erin's straight man, but Finney still manages to draw out a complex, engaging performance that is as warm as it is funny.
Masry is a badly dressed, somewhat gruff and bumbling lawyer who, after years of beating his way through an increasingly vicious legal profession, is on the edge of pure cynicism. Yet, he is still an unmistakably humane man who takes a chance on Erin's instincts and ends up in the most unlikely of places: on the cover of "L.A. Lawyer" magazine. The film's final laugh and its greatest pay-off is the idea that, despite huge settlements, magazine covers, and famous court victories, little has changed about either Masry or Erin, which reasserts their strength of character, the driving force of the film in the first place.
©2000 James Kendrick