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Grade: BErin Brockovich (2002)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, David Brisbin

Release Company: Universal Pictures

MPAA Rating: R

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Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich


Julia Roberts, Rolling Stone no. 686, June 14 - 28, 1994
Julia Roberts,...
Herb Ritts
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If you only remember Julia Roberts and her cleavage after seeing Erin Brockovich, do not fear. You don’t have an early dose of Alzheimer’s. This is Julia Roberts' movie -- the film that she was destined to play ever since she first began acting. And as far as the cleavage goes, well … it's nothing inappropriate. The film gets its R rating from the language more than anything.

This is no Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, or Everyone Says I Love You where Roberts gets to play a Cinderella character, play herself, or sing beside a Venetian canal. In Erin Brockovich Roberts clearly demonstrates that she can do much more than flash the most memorable smile in Hollywood history. She can act!

It's well established that Julia Roberts is a star ($20 million per project) who can carry a movie, but her acting abilities have been questioned over the years. No longer! Playing the title role, Roberts switches from being a charmer, to a manipulator, to an insecure mother, to a dynamo who can curse like a sailor. Additionally, in a fine late night car scene, Roberts laughs and cries simultaneously when he learns that her baby girl has spoken her first word that day. In another scene, Roberts is either really ill or is doing a supreme job acting like someone with a severe case of allergies.

The plot is relatively insignificant since it's Roberts' vehicle all the way, but people do need a narrative to follow, and this one is based on a true story. The plot plows familiar territory and parallels the Cinderella story once again, with Roberts starring as a out-of-work single mother (twice divorced) of three hitting the Los Angeles Times want ads in order to pay the bills on her cockroach infested apartment. This proves difficult. Imagine applying for jobs for which you have no experience or training while dressed very much like a hooker.

Erin makes her own break by showing up at her lawyer’s office and refusing to leave until he gives her a job. The old lawyer, Ed Masry (aptly played by Albert Finney) is a little flustered, but Erin is so insistent (and has such a wonderful cleavage) that Masry gives her a job as a filing clerk. The firm is a one-man operation with a few assistants who have loyally been with Masry for a few years. These employees seem to be a little put out at the brazen newcomer.

Sure enough, Erin finds some mysterious medical records mixed in with a real estate deal, and she goes off to investigate. You must suspend belief here. Does it really matter that Erin has no background in legal research? Not the way it's presented here. Erin has natural people skills that many smarmy lawyers lack—she even has to tutor Masry to stay after a consultation for coffee to create a bond with a client. And she does display her breasts to charm a number of the men … tastefully … almost fully clothed … and just try to stop noticing them.

It turns out that Pacific Gas & Electric is systematically poisoning Hinkley citizens with chromium 6, but they haven't suspected anything. After all, PG&E has had meetings with them to tell them how chromium is actually good for them, and is paying for their medical bills with their doctors. Never mind that virtually every family has had severe nosebleeds, kidney failure, intestinal cancer, or chickens that are born deformed.

Mixed in with Erin’s crusade to find the “smoking gun” that will link the corporate headquarters with PG&E's water poisoning, is the subplot of Erin's family life. With three kids to support, she desperately needs money but also needs a more suitable baby sitter than the low-life “chicken fat” neighbor. Erin's solution ends up being her next-door neighbor, George (Aaron Eckhart), a Harley guy who does like kids and especially likes Erin. They begin a romance of sorts though Erin becomes so focussed, as her job becomes a cause, that both George and kids are placed on the back burner.

The plot does proceed predictably with a lot of charm, and if you’ve seen the ads that proclaim that Julia Roberts rules and that the movie will “make you stand up and cheer” you already know the end result. The trip along the way has the expected twists and is satisfying, but that’s not what makes Erin Brockovich worthwhile.

It's the writing and the acting that make this film enjoyable. There are a number of places that the snappy dialog gets a laugh from the audience, and much of this is due to Susannah Grant’s script that contains some really sharp, humorous zingers. Roberts’ passing “Nice pants!” comment to the geek working at the water records department or her “Krispy Kreme” reference to the jealous overweight office clerk are just a couple of examples.

There are also moments of dialog that sound so natural, yet contain some profound moments. I’m thinking of a scene where Erin is wondering about her self worth and describes the time that she was Miss Wichita and how she still has the tiara. Was that supposed to be the highlight of her Life, she wonders. This idea expands later when George wants her to give up her job. Erin explains that “… for the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. I never had that … ever!” Roberts does deserve respect now, and some major credit must go to Grant's intelligent script.

Roberts’ acting connects positively. Hollywood has finally given Roberts a film that allows her to demonstrate her intelligence and skills. Erin Brockovich establishes Roberts as a modern Kate Hepburn—one with inner strength and charm and sincerity!

Erin cares about the people of Hinkley. A special moment occurs when the assistant lawyer (who looks like Emily Dickinson in drab gray) attempts to put Erin down for having incomplete files with missing phone numbers. Not only does Erin recite a phone number from memory, but she also recounts the family's personal and medical history. Erin actually knows these people and their hearts. And the movie that pays tribute to this remarkable person actually turns out to be worth watching!


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