Erin Brockovich Review

(3.5 STARS)

I don’t really understand the whole “Julia Roberts is America’s sweetheart” thing. Sure, Pretty Woman is great fun, but she spent most of the ‘90s doing average (or in many cases, below average) romantic comedies. For some reason, people ate it up, and by 2000, she was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Perhaps it was her status that catapulted her to the podium of the Kodak Theater that year, but even if that was the case, I have no complaints. For 120 minutes in Steven Soderbergh’s David vs. Goliath tale Erin Brockovich, Roberts lights up the screen. Her performance is captivating in a way none of her performances before were—and none of her performances since have been. The story is clichéd, but Roberts carries it through and demands you pay attention.

Roberts plays the title character, a single mother of three who goes from minimum wage job to minimum wage job. She gets in a car wreck and sues the other driver, but her pride comes across as entitlement, and she loses the case. Albert Finney plays Ed Masry, her distressed lawyer. He pities Erin’s situation, but can’t really put up with her. She demands a job—saying it’s the least he could do for losing her case. He reluctantly obliges.

Erin does not fit in at the law firm. She dresses like a slut and talks smack to the other ladies working there. But she’s good at what she does. When a pro bono case comes up involving a giant corporation, Pacific Gas & Electric, dumping toxins in a town’s water supply, she does a ton of research, eventually becoming Ed’s right-hand gal, despite having no law education whatsoever. But the case is daunting in many ways. It’s eating away at Ed’s wallet. Erin has almost no time to spend with her kids (instead dumping them on her boyfriend—a gentle biker played by Aaron Eckhart). And it’s very difficult to organize the hundreds of citizens involved in the case. But, as Ed knows, if anyone can do it, it’s Erin, who has an incredible knack for connecting with people. Despite her hard demeanor, she’s uniquely adept at gaining people’s trust, and even the most reluctant townspeople agree to do what Erin suggests—standing up and fighting.

While Erin Brockovich is most noteworthy for its lead performance, there are a lot of other things worth admiring here. Steven Soderbergh’s direction is quite good. He never allows the film to get sappy, yet he doesn’t resort to typical thriller clichés either. It’s a straightforward narrative with few, if any, surprises, but the director knows the right way to tell this story—focusing on the character and letting these true-life events develop naturally.

Erin is a complicated character. She wants people to believe she is tough-as-nails, but she’s very vulnerable. The only person who sees through her is George, her boyfriend. He knows she can’t do it all herself, as much as she might want to, so he gives her a hand raising her kids, eventually becoming their primary caretaker. These are the scenes that elevate the film above the likes of The Blind Side (which garnered many comparisons to this film). We get a look at what makes her tick, what makes her treat people the way she does, and what motivates her.

I’ve laid enough superlatives on Roberts that I feel I’m doing a disservice to the other excellent actors in this film. Albert Finney was also (deservedly) nominated for an Oscar for his work. He’s a rare cinematic lawyer with a conscience, yet he’s realistic in that he doesn’t let his heart guide all of his decisions. Aaron Eckhart is also quite good (and somewhat unrecognizable) as George, the friendliest neighbor around. Marg Helgenberger and Cherry Jones play two of the townspeople affected by the toxins in the water, and both are terrific.

It’s easy to write off Erin Brockovich as a crowd-pleasing true story. That’s because “crowd-pleasing true story” is actually an apt description of it. But it goes deeper than you might expect, and it has quite a lot of heart. The writing is terrific, the direction is solid, and the acting—especially from Julia Roberts—is exceptional. It’s emotionally engaging, as well as a very entertaining watch.

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