Erin Brockovich Erin Brockovich Directed by …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

I hadn’t realized how little interest I had in experiencing another Julia
Roberts vehicle until I sat through this one, which is why I should stress that
the movie is no subversion, deconstruction or reinvention of what its ads will
present it as. It is, pure and simple, a Julia Roberts vehicle. In practice,
that means two things first off: its calculated mix of comedy and melodrama
must honor and further, not undercut, the ditzy/sexy/self-determined screen
persona that Julia has established; and, Julia will dominate every scene and
situation in which she appears, which includes virtually every frame in the
film. The synopsis may say that it’s about a true case of environmental
degradation and corporate skullduggery, but her fans know what it’s really
about: Julia, Julia, Julia.

the only female in Hollywood’s $20-million club, so perhaps we should applaud
that and congratulate her on being able to hold her own in the company of Tom,
Leo, Mel, Will, et al. But there are ways of constructing careers out of star-centric
pictures, and some are better than others. Eastwood and Cruise, for example,
have managed to stay interesting by hopscotching genres and skirting expectations
on a regular basis. Then there’s Harrison Ford, who ambles from one crappy
formula movie to the next so unhesitatingly that you’re tempted to assume
he’s never given a moment’s thought to his artistic legacy. Considering
Erin Brockovich simply as a formula construct, Roberts might be suspected
of the same kind of cluelessness. But that would be to overlook the shrewdness
in the choice–hers in part, surely–of Soderbergh to direct it.

At this point,
Soderbergh may well be the most interesting, broadly talented director working
within the confines of Hollywood and genre. Out of Sight, which the National
Society of Film Critics voted the best movie of 1998, announced that status;
Erin Brockovich confirms it. Though he started out as the auteur of Sex,
Lies and Videotape
, and still dips into the low-budget arena with projects
like last year’s The Limey, Soderbergh has emerged as a power hitter
who seems capable of taking on and elevating any project handed him. At the
major-studio level, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment. It means that
he’s able to take the limitations that stifle most Hollywood movies–the
requirements of a star vehicle–and turn them into artistic advantages.

The hallmarks
of his style are a meticulous craftsmanship, moment-to-moment clarity and a
way of letting his characters and material breathe within the given genre structures.
When Erin Brockovich opens, Erin (Roberts) is seen responding to questions
from an offscreen job interviewer; while providing a sly nod to the opening
of Sex, Lies…, as well as doing the basic expository work of letting
us know our heroine’s a divorced mom of three small kids who’s having
trouble finding a job, the scene, as Soderbergh handles it, is all about character
and the particular textures of this moment, not plot. Of course it’s about
Julia and her persona too, but these don’t overwhelm what’s around
them; in fact, they blend with them in a way that signals Soderbergh’s
skill of balancing agendas from then on.

The star’s
persona must be packaged with the streamlined excitements of a plot, and eventually
that happens here; a reel or two in, EB emerges as a legal thriller with
comic overtones. But before that, there’s a period when you’re not
sure where the story’s going that Soderbergh’s gifts for establishing
the realities of people and situations is most striking. Erin leaves that unsuccessful
job interview only to drive straight into an auto accident at the nearest intersection
(Soderbergh shows this in a single long shot that’s a lot more jarring
than any flurry of closeups could be). Outfitted thereafter in an almost comical
neck brace, she testifies in court, looking for a hefty injury settlement, pouring
on the sentimental syrup about the kids and her just wanting to be a good mom.
But her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), isn’t the best in the field,
to say the least, and her opponent in court is a bigtime doctor. So Erin loses
and, in terms of financial straits, it’s back to square one.

going on here is a dramatic prologue of sorts, but it’s one in which points
are made that both undergird and transcend the ensuing drama. What struck me
most was the sense that I’d never seen a movie that established the stresses
of single motherhood so palpably yet offhandedly. And this isn’t a matter
of dramatic rhetoric but of keen observation and sharp description. Soderbergh
and his collaborators, including Roberts, do a subtly terrific job unveiling
Erin’s home life through countless small details: the practiced way she
carries the infant on one hip while using her free hand to deal with the other
two kids, the way she herds them out of the car and across a parking lot and
never stops talking, the hectic organization of her house and multifarious strategies
she employs for finding and dealing with child-care providers.

In a ponderous,
preeningly mannered European art film like Rosetta, the treatment of
such a character would be nothing but rhetoric and indirect condescension.
"Woe is me," it would implicitly moan while watching its protagonist
sink miserably beneath capitalism’s brutal boot. Limning people rather
than illustrating ideas, Erin Brockovich is more honest for being more
engaged with life’s actual complexities. Yes, Erin’s lot is hard and
fighting for work while trying to raise three kids is an oppressive drag. But
there’s the sense that her reality is also bound up with her view of things,
which is that, dammit, she will prevail.

Although it
eventually becomes a bit monotonous in the way it puts this across, the film
is ultimately about Erin getting her way on her own terms, in every situation
and against any conceivable challenge. When a hirsute, tattooed Hells Angels
type (Aaron Eckhart, in a very nice performance) moves in next door and rattles
her windows with his Harley, she not only cusses him out but comes away with
a volunteer child-care provider and–soon enough–a sleep-in boyfriend
to boot. (The film makes less of this relationship than it might; but then,
it’s not about relationships.) And when it comes to work, Erin’s even
more stubbornly invincible.

She barges
into Ed Masry’s office after he’s lost her injury suit and, in effect,
demands a job. Faced with a direct hit by Hurricane Erin, he unsurprisingly
grants her wish. She’s not on the job too long before she notices something
curious: There are medical records mixed in with real estate files from people
who live in a small California desert town called Hinkley. Taking it upon to
herself to investigate, Erin discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric is buying
up the townspeople’s property in a way that seems designed to steer them
away from asking questions about the possible connections between company-contaminated
groundwater and local health problems. So Erin becomes the people’s champion
and, after convincing Ed to join the crusade, heads for a legal battle with
a $30-billion corporation.

Susannah Grant’s
script is based on an actual case that resulted in a record-setting judgment,
but no one is likely to emerge from the movie more interested in the facts than
in the star-powered fiction derived from them. However much it may resemble
Silkwood or A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich exactingly
is molded to the screen presence and propensities of Julia Roberts. Sure, the
press notes may relate that the real Erin wore loud clothes that matched her
brash, assertive personality, but for Roberts this is too ideal not to be turned
into an outlandish, overdone shtick that keeps her cleavage and gams on constant,
winking display throughout the movie.

Ed even asks
Erin to upgrade her wardrobe and she brushes off the request peremptorily. Why?
It’s notable, I think, that this dispute over wardrobe contains nary a
hint of class difference. While European films obsess over class, one of the
charming qualities of Hollywood movies has always been to convert the issue
into one of personal idiosyncrasy. (Being poor and tartily dressed doesn’t
mean Erin’s trailer trash; it means she’s down on her luck but free-spirited
still.) The larger point, though, is that the sartorial argument allows Julia/Erin
to claim the high ground not just physically but emotionally as well: here and
everywhere else, she tells Ed what’s what and expects no lip or exercise
of authority in return (Finney’s great at registering the boss’ crumpled

No less than
Mildred Pierce or any other women’s picture of the 1940s, Erin
is a fable of what the 40s would not have called female empowerment.
Because Roberts has the requisite iconic heft and is very skillful to boot,
it’s pretty much a sure thing commercially. But because Soderbergh directs
it with his enormous intelligence and subtlety, it’s a lot more than that
too. The more the film rolls on, the more its script tends toward cartoonish
overstatement and predictability. Yet there’s not a single scene that lacks
some deft touch or the feeling for character and place that Soderbergh establishes
early on. In fact, the tale’s increasingly formulaic nature makes you focus
on its welcome nuances and attention to detail. One example, memorable precisely
because it’s so tiny: in an establishing shot of a government office in
the desert, you can hear the flagpole’s chain slapping against it in the

I don’t
know any other Hollywood filmmaker so capable of bringing moments of brilliance
and unexpected perception to even the most routine of assignments. In auteurist
terms, Soderbergh has been a bit of an anomaly in that his work doesn’t
display much in the way of recurring subjects, tones or obsessive themes (I
know shared elements can be found, but I’m talking about obvious
connections). Yet that doesn’t mean that he’s simply a super-talented
journeyman. It strikes me that his real passion and object of obsession may
be film itself, its craft and the opportunity for idiosyncrasy within genres
it still holds. If so, that’s a suitably postmodern attitude for a filmmaker
who has so far shown a sure knack for self-definition.