FILM MARATHON: Julia Roberts #5 – Erin Brockovich [2000]

“They’re called boobs, Ed”

It’s one of those stories to show no matter how bad things are when you’re flat broke, single, raising three kids, and unemployed, sometimes having the high-paying job makes it so your personal life is even worse. Erin Brockovich is a fascinating case study on how a tenacious attitude, street smarts, and an ability to talk to people as though you’ve known them your whole life—with a not so subtle flash of cleavage—can allow you do accomplish pretty much anything you want. Down on her luck, the bottom drops even further when an ER doctor runs through her car at an intersection where she had the right of way. A profanity-laced retort to the prosecuting lawyer later and Brockovich is seventeen grand in debt and right back to where she was before tragedy struck. With nowhere else to turn, she forces herself into a job as a clerk for the defense attorney who failed her, and then the wheels begin to turn. She said she was a fast learner and willing to do the work, but I’m sure no one thought she’d construct a multi-million dollar case with over six hundred plaintiffs and a huge utility company to foot the bill.

The principals involved in bringing this true story to the screen are not initially seen as the perfect choices. Director Steven Soderbergh had been known for his mix of personal oddities and slightly off the beaten path indie crossovers. But then came 2000 and his life would never be the same. A darling for cinephiles the world over, it wasn’t until the 21st century began that Hollywood decided to also take notice. His inventively constructed interweaving triptych Traffic, garnering praise from all directions, eventually being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and winning Best Editing, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, and Director, wasn’t the last of it either. Currently known for his prolific working schedules, who knew he’d be able to get two films in the same year to compete against each other for awards? Probably his most straightforward film, devoid of any glaring examples of his visual flair, Erin Brockovich just plain got the job done. It took an intriguing true-life court case and breathed some vigor and emotion, animating it to open the world’s eyes to a high caliber underdog; unafraid to do what’s necessary for justice. Also nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Director and Screenplay, it won a single trophy—Best Actress.

I’m not going to lie; if I had a vote back in 2001, Ellen Burstyn would have received it. That said, however, I cannot deny the power Julia Roberts brings to her portrayal of Brockovich, a very singular woman. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when Roberts is given an edge of attitude and confidence, she is unstoppable. The wardrobe is memorable—all those short skirts and low cut tops bringing her ‘assets’ to the forefront—and its juxtaposition with her ability to dress down someone who dismisses her as a white trash inferior is an apt one, but without her delivery of well-written quips (courtesy of screenwriter Susannah Grant) and heart-on-her-sleeve expressions, America wouldn’t have fallen in love with this tough-as-nails upstart. You look at the character and think high class call-girl, you see her young children eating fast food burgers because the pantry has only a jar of peanut butter and think broken single mom, yet once she speaks, cursing and no-holds-barred content included, you can’t help but see her appeal. This woman will never give up on you or run away from the promise of her word, and all the while she’ll treat you like family, dissolving any inhibitions that may exist about lawyers, making the case about humanity rather than money.

This trait is key for anything that occurs in the film to work. You see later on how mistrustful—with reason—small town folk can be to a flashy, well-dressed Ivy Leaguer looking for facts and saying, more in attitude than words, “I don’t want any sentimental projections clouding them because I just don’t care”. These people have been lied to their entire lives, growing up and raising children on land contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a chemical directly related to cancers and other horrific diseases, being told the ‘good’ version of the element is actually being used. These folks don’t want to believe—they can’t fathom anyone would be so cruel—that their ailments could stem from the kind businessmen who paid for medical examinations and said everything would be all right. Already pandered to by suits from Pacific Gas & Electric, the last thing they needed was a lawyer coming with big words and tough to understand concepts to break the news. Those fools would be dismissed as money-hungry cretins, drudging up old history for financial gain as the families dying are exploited. So, in comes Erin Brockovich, a woman from the area and one of them. She becomes a translator for the common man and their strongest cheerleader.

Soderbergh must be given credit for allowing Grant’s script to be realized in all its detailed research and findings. We go with Roberts to the water board, we watch her visit the affected families, and stand by as she fights for the intrinsic value of human decency, unable to let cold and calculated law firm plans overturn the personal bonds she has created. It isn’t her astonishing ability to memorize phone numbers, names, and facts for each client that stands out, it’s the dedication and stake she’s put in at the detriment of her own children and lover (Aaron Eckhart) back at home doing their best to support her work. Because it is great work she’s doing, helping others get the justice they deserve. But to what end does that help her loved ones? What is the money when you don’t have the time to see it used and appreciated by the ones you’ve been working so hard to provide for? Eckhart’s performance helps bring this conflict out and Albert Finney’s Ed Masry, her boss, undergoes a transformation showing her effect to breed change for the better. Sometimes the people with large hearts have just been defeated for too long. It only takes one to wake up and become the catalyst for those around her. What better change is there than giving those without faith or hope the means to survive with dignity?

Erin Brockovich 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Erin (Julia Roberts) takes care of her child in Universal’s Erin Brockovich – 2000
[2] Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in Universal’s Erin Brockovich – 2000


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