Despite a high powered publicity blitz, the more you have seen or read about the new Julia Roberts movie, Erin Brockovich the less accurate your impressions are likely to be.
If you have seen the trailers on television, you are likely to think this is a one-joke white- trash fish out of water comedy-- sort of a Daisy Mae Works Nine to Five. Meanwhile, the print interviews and commentary give the impression that this is a serious political polemic along the lines of Norma Rae, or the dour Silkwood.
The good news is that Erin Brockovich is neither. In fact, this humorous real life drama is both wise and witty, sophisticated, yet broadly entertaining. It is an old-fashioned star turn in the best sense of the word. With its story of a fiesty title character who stakes out the moral high ground and learns to be a better person in the process, it is most comparable to Jerry Maguire.
Julia Roberts is Erin Brockovich, a twice divorced, "former Miss Wichita," and unemployed mother of three. She's broke and looking for a job, when her Toyota is hit by a doctor in a Jaguar. But with her foul mouth and insistence that everything she wears must feature cleavage, she can't even get a jury to sympathize.
Albert Finney co-stars with Roberts (and her Wonderbra) as Erin's frustrated attorney, Ed Masry. He's about to retire, but resents Erin's implication that he's coasting. However, Ed takes pity on her and hires her to do filing for his middling legal practice.
The largely (in both senses of the word) female staff, doesn't take to Erin. When she complains, Ed counters, "If you're going to be working here, you ought to reconsider those outfits."
"I think I look nice," Erin says, with an off-color remark about why the rest of the staff can't dress as she does, then shoots back, "You ought to reconsider those ties."
While doing some paperwork on a pro bono real estate case, Erin makes the discovery that Pacific Gas and Electric is suspiciously generous in its offer for Masry's client's (Marg Helgenberger) property; and wonders why medical reports are included in the transaction.
Further investigation reveals that the utility has severely poisoned the groundwater in a small town, leading to serious illness for many. Erin convinces Ed to take the case, but when half the town signs on, it begins to look like they may be in over their heads.
When Ed brings in a big time corporate lawyer (Peter Coyote) however, the stuffy and prim associate (Veanne Cox) manages to alienate the town, which has taken Erin into their hearts, and she has to win them back. Meanwhile, Erin's personal life, which wasn't great to begin with, is also falling apart. In her single minded pursuit of justice for her clients, she has neglected her primary responsibilities to her family.
Erin Brockovich is likely to be one of the top grossing movies in a long time that has no special effects-- unless you count Erin's go-bra. Julia Roberts rules in her most winning performance to date. She brings the full force of her dazzling personality to the role; but in subtle ways, also shows her growth into someone who learns how to use her personality, not merely indulge it.
Likewise, Finney is not the grumpy drudge and foil most movies would settle for. He is a perfect complement to Roberts, but his character has his own strengths, and he teaches his mouthy protégé a thing or two. As Erin's children-loving biker boyfriend, George, Aaron Eckhart also gives a surprisingly subtle and appealing performance, as yet another character in this movie who is not exactly what we expect when we first see him on the screen.
With Erin Brockovich director Stephen Soderburgh may finally have the commercial success he deserved with Out of Sight. Unfairly pigeonholed as an "arty" director, Soderburgh has an unfailing storytelling talent. As in The Limey, he invigorates what-- even with Susannah Grant's smart and lively screenplay-- might have been a predictable straight-ahead storyline with life, by filming every scene for all it's worth, and never settling for cheap, movie moments.
Erin Brockovich is a wonderful surprise, and the most fun thing to happen at the movies in a good long while.