dr. steven soderbergh
str. julia roberts, albert finney, aaron eckhart
Is Erin Brockovich just another Julia Roberts movie? What actually is Ďanother Julia Roberts movie?í Mystic Pizza? Hook? Runaway Bride, God forbid? It's all too easy to forget that Roberts has starred in some of the most successful and popular films known to our generation: Pretty Woman... "Pick one: I got red, I got green, I got yellow. Iím all out of purple". Steel Magnolias (shot outside magnolia season, so the blooms were flown in and wired to the trees), and Flatliners (logline: They Are About To Experience The Adventure Of A Lifetime... Death). Add to that My Best Friendís Wedding and Notting Hill and you have a whole weekís video rental ready to go. The thing is, Roberts's embarrassments and successes seem to have one particular thing in common: theyíre trivial. Even Pretty Woman, for all its success, was "product". A classic feelgood Hollywood McMovie. Watching a "Julia Roberts film" is like the morning after a big night out. You think you had a good time but you canít quite remember why, and you feel slightly guilty about waking with a smile on your face. After all, you did something that's bad for you. But Erin Brockovich doesn't quite fit the mould...
So what prevents Erin from becoming Pretty Paralegal Clerk? Two things, probably: Steven sex, lies and videotape Soderbergh and the fact that Erin is based on a true story. Erin Brockovich is Soderberghís ninth film, and its marketing focuses more on his direction of the glossy Out Of Sight than the slightly indie sex, lies and videotape, (in my opinion the latter is the better film). It seems that the producers are playing the Julia Roberts populist card rather than the Steven Soderbergh intellectualist card; possibly a shame considering that this subtracts a little from the Erin Brockovichís intelligence. This means that people who go to the movies and "engage brain mode" (to paraphrase Red Dwarfís Kryten) have to sit in front of airheads who are expecting all the narrative progressions of a typical Hollwood potboiler and donít get the jokes.
The fact is, because Erin is based on a true story, it may not be subject to quite the same hysterical and melodramatic plot twists as your standard product. That is, Erin is not a completely predictable legal-drama Cinderella-story precisely because it remains relatively true to the actual circumstances on which it was based. I do not mean to suggest that Erin is a faithful reproduction of what actually occurred in reality. Of course, the most cinematographic, dramatic passages have been emphasised, exchanges fictionalised and characters composited. But in the main, the actors are representing real individuals who do the same things we all do sometimes: swear inappropriately, dress badly, have ugly kids and say things to our partners we canít retract. This ain't no Pretty Woman. This is big hair and tan lines saying "Fuck you back".
Erin Brockovich is a twice-divorced mother of three young children with no job, no money and an unsexy neckbrace. Following a car accident in which she is not at fault, Erin finds herself in a courtroom justifying her claims for compensation. The hearing goes awry when the lawyers for the defence (an upstanding, Jaguar-driving doctor) ask if Erinís ex-husband will be helping her financially. She responds, "which one?" and itís all downhill from there, with her lawyer Ed Masry (warmly and subtly played by veteran Albert Finney) failing to secure any kind of settlement. With three kids and no qualifications other than once being Miss Wichita, Erin is basically unemployable. Her lawyer is her only visible source of aid, and when she demands a job at his practice (in lieu of her expected compensation) he gives her a clerical position more to shut her up than anything else. Masry could never have known that his professional relationship with Brockovich would lead to their involvement in the biggest direct-action lawsuit known to American history.
Pacific Gas & Electric, a 30 billion dollar company, seems to have been cutting corners on its safety measures at a plant in Hinkley, Texas. Although the companyís doctors have examined local residents and found nothing to be concerned about, evidence of Hexavalent chromium leaks soon surfaces. A woman has five miscarriages (but sadly continues to blame her own imagined promiscuity and immorality), another develops cancerous tumors in her breasts and uterus, previously healthy children inexplicably fall ill. A PG&E worker cleaning cooling tanks wears a white surgeonís mask stained red from nosebleeds. Meanwhile, Erin Brockovich chips away at her little job at the law firm (while George the Harley-rider with a heart of gold looks after her kids), and discovers medical files mixed in with property acquisition files in Masry and Vititoeís archives. Miss Brockovich takes the law into her own hands.
The subsequent exploration of Erinís near-obsessive investigation of the case, her burgeoning relationship with sensitive-new-age-bikie George, and her compromised relationship with her three kids makes for an engaging 2 hours. The narrative is underscored by Erinís struggle to reconcile her own intelligence and dignity with the comparatively belittling views others have of her. Their opinions may have something to do with her predilections for blue eyeshadow, snakeskin micro-minis and haltertops with bra straps hanging out. Actually, Julia looks alot more like a hooker in Erin Brockovich than she did in Pretty Woman. That said, Erin is an intelligent film whose female protagonist is in every scene. The filmmakers are to be commended for producing a movie which provides us with a strong female lead whose peccadilloes are realistic and whose achievements, while exceptional in stature, have been brought about by a determination which exists within all of us. Roberts carries the film admirably, with strong support from Finney and Aaron Eckhart (who plays George and who, I suspect, may be the next big thing). This casting is sensible, considering the resemblance the actors bear to the individuals theyíre intended to portray. The real Erin allegedly swears more and wears shorter skirts, (bend over too far and the world is your gynaecologist), but hey, you gotta stop somewhere.
Soderbergh has stated that this is "not really a movie about a lawsuit. Itís about a person who cannot reconcile how she views herself with the way others view her." Erin Brockovich is not an entirely fictional story about Cinderella White-Trash making good. Itís about real people being bothered to ask questions and make sacrifices in order to protect something they believe is worth defending. In the process said real people come up against a real multi-billion dollar company with unlimited legal resources and apparently, no principles. In fact, PG&E are still in litigation because of similar misdeeds at another of their plants. Not only is it David against Goliath, itís David against Goliath and his ďwhole fucking familyĒ. So does Erin get anywhere? Does she win? And it's worth asking, when was the last time you stuck your neck out to protest against something you thought was wrong?
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toto :: cinema matters
Another Erin Brockovich review by Huan Tzin Goh.
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