Erin Brockovich (2000)

D: Steven Soderbergh
S: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney

Susannah Grant's screenplay and Julia Roberts' performance take centre stage in this film despite the directorial credit for comeback King Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey). Though directed with restraint and a good sense of timing, the film trades heavily on a script which omits generic detail in favour of a starmaking portrait of a fiercely independent modern American woman, which Roberts rises to with gusto, pathos, and humour. Secondary characters remain secondary. Even the facts of the real-life case (an uneducated, divorced mother of three who bullies her way into a job at a law firm becomes an investigator and uncovers the biggest environmental scandal in recent American history) are just the background to her constant presence and indominatible spirit. In one sense, this is a perfectly legitimate reading of the story of Erin Brockovich. Given Grant's choice to steer away from the standard-issue courtroom scenes and focus more firmly on the interpersonal relationships, it plays somewhat closer to melodrama than a legal and ethical thriller. This steers it away from the likes of The China Syndrome or A Civil Action, or, perhaps more directly, Silkwood and Norma Rae. It also makes it a film which is likely to appeal to females more than males, foregrounding emotions and turning on themes of trust and commitment rather than the typically 'weighty' ones which this genre usually relies upon. This does make it quite a different film from any of these others however, and it certainly lacks a sense of the personal danger of a conspiracy film, or even of the broader social significance of the case which a documentary might emphasise, which hurts it. This may be a male reaction of course, but arguably these elements of this story are important and sidelining them to the extent that the film does may have left certain things unsaid which might have given it greater force.

It is still an effective film. It achieves precisely what it sets out to with both style and humour. It is a portrait of a woman who rises to challenge without compromise and eventually achieves not only personal satisfaction, but enhances the quality of life for victimised families. It is a dream role for any actress, and Roberts, in a performance in many ways not dissimilar from the one which made her a star in Pretty Woman, is commanding (though it is in a very different key from her equally worthwhile turn in My Best Friend's Wedding). She is the centre of the script, at the centre of the camera's gaze, and the centre of the movie in a way which hearkens back to the star vehicles of the 1930s and 40s rather than the more politically self-conscious stories in Norma Rae and Silkwood. It is still polemical, but its feminist rhetoric is directed inward to questions of self-realisation and empathic connections between women (the emphasis on Roberts' relationship with Marg Helgenberger as one of the afflicted is particularly telling, as is her ability to reach stalwart Cherry Jones as another victim whose front door carries a forbidding 'no solicitors' sign) more than it is about women's role in society.

Of course one might argue that it may be extended beyond the frames of reference of the story by inference. Grant's script suggests and affects change on a human level by building connections from the ground up. It is a story of a woman motivated first out of a need to protect herself and her family. The early stages detail her frustration with her life and with her seeming inability to get a break from men, from the system, and from people's perceptions of her (Grant's script suggests that she looses a personal injury case because her manner of dress and profane speech turns the jury off her). As the film progresses, she takes on an 'extended' family and a new definition of herself (she tells would-be boyfriend Aaron Eckhart that people respect her for the first time in her life now that she has become involved in the case). The personal and the political are thereby explicitly intertwined, although the focus of the film remains definitively personal. The costs to her primary personal relationships are emphasised in scenes which show she has become estranged from her young son and especially Eckhart, but the film turns on the latter's realisation that Erin's work has been important in helping other people, shown in the tearful encounter between Roberts and Helgenberger which takes place in his presence.

The natural conclusion of this dramatic trajectory is that her story comes to encompass the whole of America. It is therefore a film about women's role in American society not so much in terms of broad trends and important legal decisions (both of which are in question in this case), but in terms of matters of personal integrity and self-realisation. The film even goes so far as to criticise the more conventional type of successful woman. Erin's uncompromising attitude spares no one, and several scenes focus on her cruelty to well-groomed and educated female lawyers, who are portrayed as emotionally disconnected, almost sub-human, slaves to the system; 'sell-outs' for want of a better word. Bucking the system, it seems, is more important than working within it for your own gain. While on one hand this is not unexpected and works as part of an aggressively subjective world-view, it is again evidence of the film's deliberately narrow frames of reference, extracting cheap laughs from watching 'suits' getting a going-over regardless of the implications for women whose personal success has been of that variety (a brief rebuke from boss Albert Finney does little to convince either Erin or the audience that they do not deserve her scorn).

Of the two important male roles in the film, Finney, in the role of Ed Masry (whose failure to represent and respect her to her satisfaction in the early scenes serves as a thematic pointer for the main drama), is the most effective. His performance captures a degree of nuance which Eckhart lacks in his all-too well-meaning gentility as the biker boyfriend. He even gets to one-up Roberts in the film's final moments in a nicely cathartic bit of gentle poking of fun at her hard-assed attitudes. Though he remains a cipher, Finney is at least an identifiable presence, and an ever-impressive actor in his own right. Eckhart has some nicely affectionate scenes with both Roberts and the children, but his personal character arc never succeeds in rising above Roberts' and he tends to disappear into the background instead of provide the film with the kind of depths which the secondary characters brought to Silkwood. An amusing role is reserved for indie fave Tracey Walter (Repo Man, Silence of the Lambs), who wears a baseball cap which pays homage to the Sundance film festival (watch for it). Peter Coyote has a lamentably small role as another male lawyer whom Finney engages to help them with the case in what Erin perceives as an attempt to usurp her position.

Soderbergh's direction is notably discreet. If Out of Sight was a brash return to form which blended script and visual flair in a stylish and entertaining brew and The Limey foregrounded style to the cost of story, Erin Brockovich allows its script and star to dominate to the extent that his quite deliberate and intimate choice of camera set-ups becomes nearly invisible. Yet there is a detectable directorial presence in the film's urgent pace. It moves relentlessly forward despite a two hour plus running time and a story which lends itself to snail's-pace exposition. The camera is most unobtrusive, almost Dogma 95 in its devotion to simple, naturalistic shooting and blocking. It provides emphasis to the portrayal of emotion, particularly in its many close-ups of Roberts' face (most notably the scene where she listens tearfully to Eckhart's tale of her infant daughter's first word, which she has missed). It is certainly a contrast with both Out of Sight and The Limey, and though, as a Soderbergh film, it is less enjoyable, this does allow the authorial voice to shift to Grant and Roberts, which is probably just as well given the circumstances.

Erin Brockovich is a very well made, well-written, and well-acted film which is both entertaining and relatively thought-provoking. Its deliberate sacrifice of political resonance in favour of a portrait of successful female self-realisation may not endear it to some, but it is engrossing. Roberts is good in a tailor-made role and though her plunging necklines may raise eyebrows, she carries herself with believable determination and dignity throughout. It is well worth a look and the first notable film of Y2K. It is also likely to endure, if for no other reason than for the fact that it lends itself to easily to comparison with films like Silkwood and Norma Rae (or even Rosa Luxemburg if your taste is a tad more esoteric), however poorly it may fare against them in one's personal estimation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.