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Erin Brockovich

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Erin Brockovich

Starring: Julia Roberts, Aaron Eckhart
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Rated: R
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: March 2000
Genres: Drama, Comedy

*Also starring: Marg Helgenberger, Albert Finney, Scarlett Pomers, Cherry Jones

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If sales of Deer Park, Poland Spring, Evian and 170 other bottled water brands did not skyrocket after John Travolta's heroic role in Steven Zaillian's "A Civil Action," they're not likely to zoom this time around either--notwithstanding Steven Soderbergh's frightfully similar tale, "Erin Brockovich." Soderbergh's story follows the outline of "A Civil Action" up and down the line: the small-town lawyer who hocks everything just before he is about to retire to Palm Beach, even taking a second mortgage to pursue the big, evil company; the heavily bankrolled legal team hired by a billionaire corporate steamroller; the pollution which the company knew about but did little to curtail; the illness and death of both adults and children from a combination of cancers including leukemia, and carcinomas of the ovaries and breasts; the merely remote chance of winning anything substantial.

This time around the true story revolves not around the Grace Company but about PG&E, or Pacific Gas and Electric, with assets of $28 billion and an obstinacy about negotiating anything close to the amount of money that could compensate over 600 families afflicted by water poisoned with chromium. Why would the producers bank on a yarn so similar to Zaillian's scarcely more than a year later? Two words: Julia Roberts--whose main assets are her big mouth and, as one Internet critic puts it, her possession of a wonderbra. Travolta may know how to dance, but Julia has the cleavage needed to bring in the crowds--particularly since "Erin Brockovich" is a feel-good film with all the numbing predictability movie-goers seem to demand.

While this obvious little yarn sorely lacks irony, the one paradoxical point is that so many Americans do not like or trust lawyers and yet flock to the cinema for any adaptation of John Grisham book, preferring plots highlighting small-town Davids taking on big-city Goliaths. We eschew the $400-an- hour attorneys in their dark, pin-striped suits who haunt the top floors of Wall Street offices or, on the other hand the small-potatoes advocates who make their living chasing ambulances. But give us an avuncular counselor, preferably getting on in years, who risks his entire retirement in a gamble for justice, and we're suckered in--particularly if the jokes are discreetly mixed with the poignancy and are sexual in nature. Throw in a few cute tykes and a romantic lover on the side and you've got "Erin Brockovich."

The title character (Julia Roberts) is at her wit's end, bogged down with the care of three kids, her two husbands having left her with $74 in her bank account (with which she is able to afford rent, a car, and a dazzling array of provocative outfits). With no fancy degrees to her name and, despite her looks, an inability to charm a series of potential employers, she finagles a job as a research assistant to an attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). By sheer coincidence, her new neighbor, a biker named George (Aaron Eckhart), is (by choice) unemployed and willing to take care of her kids while she's in the legal office scraping out a living. When Erin comes across evidence that an epidemic of illnesses in the town can be traced to the presence of chromium in the water supply, she convinces her boss to take on the perps, PG & E, despite the time, money, and energy needed to pursue the case against an array of slick corporate lawyers. The hearings, the petitions, the meetings with the largely unsophisticated and mistrusting townspeople are by now so easy to follow by anyone who has ever been the movies that there's scarcely a need to reveal the plot, nor would we risk much by disclosing the final result of the litigation. At least John Grisham's stories, commercial though they may be, do not end with unmitigated victories for the little guys who are besieged and corrupted and made ill by the malefactors of great wealth.

Director Soderbergh is best known for "Out of Sight," considered quirky for a commercial movie in that it credibly shows a romantic connection between two people on opposite sides of the law. But Soderbergh's real achievement before becoming stridently commercial is his 1989 indie "sex, lies and videotape," blessed with real actors like James Spader, Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher--in which a selfish lawyer with a frigid wife and sister-in-law-lover has an unpredictable effect on an old college friend who comes up for a visit.

If Soderbergh wanted to get serious with the true story of the PG&E lawsuit, he would have used Cherry Jones in the principal role of research assistant instead of shoving her into the background as a reluctant witness who finally comes around when she realizes how wonderful Ms. Brockovich is. I'd not be surprised to see our online colleagues on the World Socialist Website take writers Susannah Grant and Richard LaGravenese to task for reinforcing the idea that if you want to succeed and make a fortune with just two years' hard work, you'd better be gorgeous. When asked by her boss how she was able to get so many people to cooperate with the plaintiff's cause, Erin replies, "It's called boobs, Ed." Absent the bosom and the thigh-length skirt, would this case have ever made it out of the initial deposition stage? Would this movie not be shipped off to videotape after a quick run in the theaters?

(C) 2000 Harvey Karten,

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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