A Film by Steven Soderbergh
Co-written by Soderbergh and Susannah Grant
The new film from Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), is an unlikely combination of ingredients that add up to a film that is more than the sum of its parts. Based on a true story about a feisty single mother of three who was instrumental in bringing a billion dollar corporation to task for causing death and disease in a rural California town, the film brings star-power to bear on what might otherwise have been a little-seen "message" movie.
The real Erin Brockovich (who has a brief cameo as a waitress named, ironically, Julia) is a former beauty queen - Ms. Witchita (KS) - whose life up until the PG&E case was a series of disappointments and dead ends. With two failed marriages, no marketable skills and three children to support, she was nearing the end of her tether when an automobile accident brought her into contact with attorney Ed Masry.
The unsuccessful personal injury case which Masery handled for her led to an entry level job with his law firm. That job led Brockovich to develop an interest in the fact that medical records were included in what was ostensibly a real estate case which she was given to research
Brockovich interviewed the people involved and realized that something more was going on than had at first been apparent. Her relentless and unorthodox pursuit of the case led eventually to what was at the time the largest direct-action personal injury settlement in US history, $333 million to about 625 plaintiffs.
As adapted for the screen the film takes elements from a number of classic genres. It is a "David and Goliath" story, like Local Hero or Norma Rae. It is a "Fish Out Of Water" scenario, with the uneducated, brassy Brockowitch suddenly operating in the normally staid world of corporate law. It is a character study, and an "issue" film.
And it is a star-vehicle for Julia Roberts, who, in spite of a series of disappointing recent films, is still the biggest female box-office star in America. This alone is often the kiss of death for a Hollywood project (see the recent Leonardo DeCaprio film The Beach or Kevin Costner's The Postman).
But what could have been an empty "mix and match" pastiche comes together as a surprisingly powerful evocation of the social and political struggles that form a part of the American experience on the brink of the Twenty-first Century. Thanks to a clear, tight screenplay (by Susannah Grant) and fine performances by Roberts and Albert Finney, as Masry, as well as an excellent supporting cast, the human dimension of the story is kept constantly in focus, and the essential interplay between drama and melodrama is neatly balanced.
It is a delicate balancing act. The film often swings giddily over the abyss. Roberts is so likeable, so attractive even in her most abandoned moments, that it makes her eventual triumph too predictable. It is never clear where Brockovich, as a single mother of three small children, finds the time to do her subtle but elaborate make-up each day, and keep it looking nearly perfect.
But in the end, Roberts' sincerity - perhaps guided and restrained by the fine but imperceptible hand of Soderbergh - her obvious attention to and affection for her character carries the day. It's such a pleasure getting to know the feisty Brockovich - watching her get to know herself - that it doesn't matter that it's a foregone conclusion that she will come out alright. Suspense is not an important element here. Instead, it is the uplifting triumph of the underdog that is entertaining audiences.
Despite its many shortcomings as a realist narrative, thanks to Roberts' presence, the film will attract an audience that might otherwise never consider issues like those presented here. In a world increasingly dominated by money, the impersonal power of huge corporations often seems overwhelming and invincible. This highly personal and singular take on the theme of putting a human face on the victims of such power, and empowering them to acheive some sort of redress for their injuries will be a new and welcome thought to many.
There is a bit too much slick Hollywood polish in the look of the film. The tarty outfits Roberts wears, for instance, part of what establishes her "outsider," "maverick" status initally, eventually become a distraction. They go over the top, and become an end in themselves, as each tops the one before. Instead of following the film's emotional arc, many will be distracted by wondering what they'll put her (part-way) in next.
Soderbergh, whose understated first feature was a surprize success that was an "actors' film," manages to give his two stars enough room to give energetic, enjoyable performances without letting them go so far over the top as to fall into caricature. The chemistry between them is what brings both characters more fully to life and their appeal helps counterbalance the lack of suspense or excitement and contributes greatly to the films overall success.
Albert Finney is clearly enjoying himself as the lawyer Masry. In his characterizaton he combines a healthy selfishness, idealism educated by realism and an avuncular competence that makes his restrained admiration for Brockovich an effective comment on her character. His growing trust in her and affection for her serve to anchor the same emotions for the audience. And Finney gets a chance to show his talent for comedy here as well, faultlessly delivering many of the best laugh lines in the film.
As Brockovich, Roberts is a tough, angry woman with few illusions. It is Roberts' physical attractiveness and wonderful comic timing - one of her greatest strengths - that keep her from appearing shrill and bitter. The relationship she establishes with Finney - and with Aaron Eckhart, who plays her patient and supportive boyfriend, George - provide the elements that humanize what otherwise could have been a manipulative and vulgar character.
As George, Eckhart has a thankless task - which he performs with skill and confidence. He plays the film's hero's significant other - a part that would be dismissed as "the girl" in a
conventional, male-centered story. In this reverse-angle perspective he gets somewhat better treatment most of his female counterparts. He fleshes out the role with small details that add depth and personality to the story, and by reflection to the character of Brockovich.
The child actors in the film do a wonderful job. This is usually a tribute to the director, who has to coodrdinate the needs of his professional adults with the sometimes unpredictable behavior of even the most docile and malleable children. One gets a hint of how he worked in a marvelous scene in which Roberts and a child playing her three-year-old daughter go out on the porch to see something that has been delivered to the house.
The dialogue is clearly improvised, with the child responding spontaneously and Roberts following her lead, in character. The result is one of the most genuine and delightful moments in the whole film, one that makes the character's maternity totally credible.
The production design and locations are strong. The rural California countryside has a foregotten, empty look that is a perfect backdrop for the unfolding horror of the damage the people have suffered. The design of the houses Brockovich visits during her interview process is thoughtfully individualized to forstall the tendency to lump all the victims together, to lose sight of their individual humanity. Brockovich's own house is tacky, modest and messy enough to be believeable.
The camera work represents an excellent example of straight narrative cinematography. Without showy tricks, complicated camera placement or movement, the camera stays faithfully with the actors, follows them at a respectful distance, and lets us watch the story unfold.
Soderbergh has succeeded here where the possibly better written and better acted The Insider failed - at the box office. The liberal doses of humor with which the script is leavened, combined with Roberts'emotional appeal to viewers is bringing crowds out to see this film. That the film has a connection to events unfolding in the world adds a certain level of credibility to the whole production.
In my own area (upstate New York), US Generating, a subsidiary of PG&E - which its spokespeople point out is a totally distinct PG&E from the company represented as the corporate polluter in the film, with a separate board of directors - is trying to build a gas-fired electrical generating plant in Athens (NY), on the Hudson River. The plant would draw its cooling water from the river and then discharge it back, significantly warmed.
Opponents of the plant have among their concerns, the effect this discharge water might have on the ecosystem. It was hexavalent chromium, used as a rust retardant in the cooling system at the California plant that gave rise to the tragedy depicted in this film.
With the tie-in to local events, Erin Brockovich becomes significantly more compelling viewing, but even without that, this well-acted, well-written, well-crafted film would still be worth a look.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.