Neil Young’s Film Lounge

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Erin Brockovich

6/10

USA 2000, dir. Stephen Soderbergh, stars Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart

Stephen Soderbergh doesn’t hang about. Barely has The Limey vanished from our theatres before Erin Brockovich arrives to take its place. Brockovich continues this hard-working director’s streak of good form, and while it doesn’t quite measure up to either The Limey or 1998’s Out Of Sight, it’s a marvellously enjoyable crowd-pleaser which, if nothing else, looks a good bet to provide Julia Roberts with her first Oscar.

Working squarely in the mainstream and avoiding the tricky colour filters and timeline distortions that have become his recent trademark, Soderbergh’s main function here is to provide the framework for his star to dominate the movie from start to finish. Appearing in every scene, and provided with all the best lines, Roberts takes full advantage, and it would take a pretty hard-hearted viewer not to be swept along on the energy she radiates, and it isn’t hard to see why this movie took more money in the US during its first week than all of Soderbergh’s films after Sex, Lies and Videotape managed over the whole of their runs.

Erin Brockovich tells, with admirable clarity and directness, the true story of how an divorced mother of three muscled her way into a lowly job at a California law firm then stumbled across an enormous environmental scandal – a major local utility provider had allowed contaminated fluids to seep into and pollute a small town’s water supply. Brockovich then persuaded her boss (Albert Finney) to gamble everything on preparing and bringing the case to court.

The true-life basis of the story is in one way a blessing, because if this were fiction it would be pretty tough to believe. But it does pose one fairly large problem : drama, and the lack of it. The big-business bad guys remain pretty faceless throughout and, whereas in The Insider their tactics were blatant, constant and insidious, here there’s just a single menacing phone call. And Erin is just so ballsy and indomitable that the final outcome is never in much doubt.

The movie stacks the deck by making everyone who opposes or dislikes Erin appear foolish, undercutting them by reducing them to caricatures who, once bested, have no possibility of redress. This is especially the case with female characters – a frumpy secretary at Erin’s firm who resents the younger woman’s figure-revealing work attire; a solicitor at another firm brought in to bolster the case, who is presented as a bloodless bluestocking; a representative of the utility company whose basic function is to be lectured by Erin then act as stooge in a gag involving a glass of water.

The only strong female character besides Erin is played by the terrific stage star Cherry Jones (Cradle Will Rock), and it’s distressing to see this powerful actress – who, if the script would only allow it, is probably capable of blowing Roberts off the screen – stuck in a curiously curtailed role. Her character is the only one of the townsfolk affected by the pollution who isn’t entirely convinced by Erin’s risky strategy, but she undergoes a rapid, unexplained and unconvincing conversion late on.

The other main problem with the film is the way each of Erin’s successes at work is immediately matched by a setback at home – either involving Erin’s neglected kids, or her easygoing biker boyfriend/childminder (Aaron Eckhart) – in a manner which becomes increasingly formulaic. As does the score – yet another jingly-jangly number by the severely overworked Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Green Mile, etc, etc).

So it isn’t hard to pick holes in Erin Brockovich. It’s basically a TV movie story, deftly and economically handled by a very talented director who, given the chance to work with Hollywood’s biggest star, has perhaps wisely opted to rein himself in a little and cut down on his natural tendency towards artiness. But as ever with Soderbergh, it looks great, with editing and cinematography absolutely top notch, and the performances are faultless across the board – Finney in particular strikes the right bemused notes. Brockovich is ideal night-out-at-the-movies stuff, no more and no less, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Except Soderbergh remains capable of a good deal more besides.

by Neil Young