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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 Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4

"Erin Brockovich," whose nonfictional roots are made markedly clear even before the first frame of film, is the sort of vibrantly acted, feel-good legal drama that will inevitably leave many viewers enthusiastically raving about its qualities while exiting the movie theater. After all, the film didn't score a 98 out of 100 on Cinemascore, an almost unheard-of average grade from the general public whose seen it, for nothing. Superior to the usual movie whose newspaper and television blurbs read such things as, "It will make you stand up and cheer!," and absent of the majority of possible corniness, and tiresome courtroom scenes, that may very well have seeped into the proceedings with a lesser director at the helm, "Erin Brockovich," nonetheless, has its own problems.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, a largely independent filmmaker (1989's stirring "sex, lies, and videotape") whose last studio picture was the undernourished, overrated 1998 George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez starrer, "Out of Sight," his latest excursion into the world of feature films has acquired the same sparkling performances that "Out of Sight" possessed, but remains just as unsatisfying in the long run. With a plot hook that was almost identically seen in 1998's "A Civil Action," yet focuses more on the central character than the former did on John Travolta, "Erin Brockovich," for all of its attributes, lacks urgency. As the developments in the case (a toxic level of chromium is found within the water supply in the small desert town of Hinkley, Calif., causing the residents to grow seriously ill) play out in the nearly two-and-a-quarter-hour running time, there is a complete insufficiency of suspense or rooting interest because it is clear, every step of the way, how the plot is going to evolve.

Julia Roberts, Hollywood's most popular leading lady, is unlike many of today's top stars because she actually has proven time and time again that she is a remarkably good actress. Unfairly labeled a performer who only makes romantic comedies, Roberts has made so many pictures in that genre because she is simply a charmer, and has the ability to win any viewer over, no matter what. That is not all she is about, however, as proven with "Erin Brockovich," which hands her one of the most memorable roles of her career, and she runs with it. As the self-titled character, a dirt-poor, twice-divorced mother of three who cares deeply for her children and desperately needs a job to get some cash, Roberts invigorates added life into a character that has been so freshly written to begin with.

After an automobile accident that leaves her with a case of whiplash and a court loss when her attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), fails to convince the jury that it was the fault of the other driver, a doctor, Erin, who brashly, yet honestly, has a way of telling people like it is, walks right into the law firm of Masry and Vitito one day and demands that Ed give her a job. "I'm smart, I'm hard-working, I will work without benefits. Please don't make me beg," Erin heartfeltly tells him. While filing the real estate paperwork for the purchase of homes in Hinkley by PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric), Erin stumbles upon the distressingly bleak medical files of the Hinkley residents peculiarly placed with the real estate information. After Ed allows her to research the files more, and following her initial meetings with several of the townspeople, Erin grows deeply involved in their story, firmly believing that they have a case after discovering the chromium within the water.

"Erin Brockovich" may be "based on a true story," but it is the sort of film that, if fictional, would be no less predictable. Following an intriguing opening half-hour as we meet and get to sympathize with Erin, who may dress in revealing clothing and not have a college degree, but who undeniably has an intelligent brain in her head and a caring heart in her chest, the film is bogged down in a narrative that is about as fresh as a loaf of one-month-old bread. Without a quick pace, something that almost any cliched movie needs in order to be successful, the film too often just lies there, immobile. Even the music score, by Thomas Newman, is basically a carbon copy of the one he composed for the infinitely better "American Beauty."

Thank goodness, then, for Roberts and the other top-flight actors, as well as some of the snappy dialogue within Susannah Grant's otherwise unworthy screenplay. Roberts, a naturally likable screen presence, single-handedly steals the film, but is ably supported by Albert Finney, who, with his own aptitude for humor and realism, makes a surprisingly great partner for Robert. Aaron Eckhart, playing a kind Harley Davidson-loving biker who falls for Erin and agrees to watch her kids while at work, tries his mightiest, but is so underwritten, and the subplot so shoddily penned, that the film might have benefitted from it being either edited out or rewritten. Finally, Marg Helgenberger, as the understanding housewife in Hinkley whom Erin first meets, is first-rate, and her character warmly and powerfully handled in only a few key scenes.

While it may be a wise career move for director Soderbergh to alternate between more risky, independent-minded projects and big-budget pictures, with "Erin Brockovich," he has made something so conventional and cinematically bland that it seems like the perfect example of the type of film Soderbergh has so valiantly fought against in the last decade of being a filmmaker.

Copyright 2000 Dustin Putman

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