If you want mainstream Hollywood entertainment done right, you have to bring in an outsider. Sometimes, as when a maverick like Sam Raimi is unhappily married to a dud like For Love of the Game, the union produces a stillborn child; but sometimes a talented director brings the material up to his level. Steven Soderbergh, after over a decade of experimenting in various forms of independent film (sex, lies and videotape; The Underneath; Schizopolis; The Limey), has begun to dabble in the mainstream; his current marriage, to a major studio film with an A-list star, could have been enough to send him scurrying back to the art house.
The result here is not stillborn but a frisky, friendly child full of surprises. Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh’s comedy-drama starring Julia Roberts, is in outline a lot like several other films, particularly A Civil Action, as well as the sort of true-life empowerment story you see on Lifetime every six months or so. But this film moves with a light step, and it takes time not just to establish characters but to appreciatethem. You’re in the hands of a director who genuinely likes people. In tone, the movie is actually closer to gentle mid-period Jonathan Demme films (like Melvin and Howard or Citizens Band) than to a routine legal drama.
If Erin Brockovich didn’t actually exist (she does, and has a cameo in the movie as a waitress named Julia), some screenwriter would’ve had to invent her for Julia Roberts. As written by Susannah Grant (Ever After and 28 Days), Erin is brassy, determined, full of love for her three kids and wary of everyone else; the character is perfectly suited to Roberts’ strengths, and she plays Erin as a frazzled, ordinary woman with a knack for cutting to the point. No cutie-pie, Erin is a sharp, angular person — an irresistible force that doesn’t believe in immovable objects.
After managing to find work at a California law firm, Erin starts to discover odd things in routine real-estate files: medical records that don’t seem to belong there. She soon learns that a local plant, Pacific Gas & Electric, has been contaminating the water with chromium and has been trying to buy off the locals. With the initially grudging help of her boss, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), Erin digs deeper and tries to rally the townspeople in a lawsuit against the corporation.
In a way, Erin Brockovich is the distaff companion to Wonder Boys — a disorganized wreck finds meaning in an endeavor larger than him/herself. The filmmakers here, as in Wonder Boys, pay more attention to subtleties of character than to plot mechanics. The actors are given space to bloom. Aaron Eckhart, so reptilian in his other roles (In the Company of Men, etc.), turns in a relaxed, friendly performance as George, the scruffy biker who gets involved with Erin and looks after her kids because he genuinely likes them. Albert Finney, too, seems energized in his many scenes with Roberts. They make a great team, providing two laughs for the price of one: Erin says something outlandish, and then Ed stands there silently, unsure whether to scream or laugh, or both. Watching Albert Finney struggling to keep his composure is one of the quieter pleasures of the movie season.
Don’t mistake Erin Brockovich for a classic or a masterpiece. Like Soderbergh’s previous mainstream film Out of Sight, it’s simply an example of Hollywood entertainment done with finesse and compassion, the way it always should be but so often isn’t. Perhaps such a movie triumphs more because of what it doesn’t do than because of what it does (Erin Brockovich, for instance, contains not a single tedious courtroom scene). The movie isn’t really even about the lawsuit or about going after a corporation. It’s about a woman finding out what she was meant to do, and finding the community that needs her.