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ERIN BROCKOVICH

Review by Andrew Manning (3/00)
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY BY MATTHEW LEARY

Release: 2000, Universal
Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger
Director: Steven Soderbergh
MPAA Rating: [R] language, sexuality
Genre: Drama




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SUMMARY

When legal assistant Erin Brockovich (Roberts) discovers that Pacific Gas and Electric may be responsible for poisoning the people of Hinkley, she embarks on a crusade to sue the corporate giant. As the lawsuit progresses, Brockovich, a foul-mouthed, single mother of three, also finds herself on a personal quest for respect, confidence, and independence. Based on a true story.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

Part single-mom-against-the-world, part courtroom drama, Erin Brockovich is nearly identical to A Civil Action, only with significantly more focus and development on the main character.

WHAT'S GOOD

Julia Roberts manages to take a sufficient departure from her generally squeaky-clean image and pulls off the vulgarity and cutthroatedness required for the character of Erin Brockovich. Based on a real life person of the same name, the Brockovich character is the embodiment of a tough, single mom fighting for survival in a world constantly throwing obstacles at her: two divorces, an auto accident, medical bills, and a working world that doesn't want to give her a chance. To her credit, Roberts plays Brockovich with a surprising yet believable dose of foul language, sexual promiscuity, and overall white trash manners. To quote a very old joke, she's like school in summertime: no class.

After an auto accident that leaves her with a large hospital bill and a failed lawsuit against the man who blindsided her, a desperate and destitute Brockovich bullies a tiny, backwater law firm into giving her a job. While sifting through paperwork, she comes across a case involving utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric. PG&E, it seems, has been poisoning the water of the town of Hinkley with hexavalent chromium for over a decade, resulting in the population becoming afflicted with cancers of all sorts. Brockovich's research revives the case, elevating it from a simple real estate dispute to a criminal cover-up on the part of the evil, corporate empire (note the propaganda-like similarities between this movie and The Insider and A Civil Action). Brockovich eventually rallies the citizens of Hinkley to sue and sue hard, and they collectively embark on a quest to make PG&E pay for medical damages.

Albert Finney and Julia Roberts

The legal half of the movie proves to be interesting. Erin Brockovich manages to do something that both The Insider and A Civil Action absolutely failed at: create a sympathetic group of plaintiffs. I have little concern for people who choose to smoke cigarettes, so The Insider felt like a bunch of whiners trying to get their cut of big tobacco. And A Civil Action, despite having the exact same set-up as Brockovich, tried too desperately to elicit sympathy through overt sentiment. While Brockovich has its share of cheap shots, it mostly gets audiences to relate by slowly growing the relationships between Brockovich and the townspeople. She eats cake with them, she acts as a go-between for the clients and the lawyers, and she seems to be genuinely concerned about them. She playfully jokes with a little girl with cancer until she gets a smile out of her, and she consoles a woman who has to get a mastectomy and hysterectomy. The townspeople of Hinkley become real people to us as we examine their personal health problems.

Another important difference between Brockovich and A Civil Action is their central characters: despite being a first class bitch, Brockovich is a likable big screen character (knowing her in real life might be another story, though), while Travolta's Jan Schlichtmann just seemed like your run of the mill jackass "lawyer with a heart of gold" Hollywood stereotype.

A funny parallel between those two movies nicely sums up the spirit of each: In A Civil Action, Travolta says, "Mortgage my house" and William H. Macy replies, "I already did." In Brockovich, Erin B. gets her boss to mortgage his house.

One major appeal of the Brockster is her guttermouth that has no problem in telling it like how she sees it. When a female lawyer accidentally offends her and tries to apologize by saying, "We got off on the wrong foot," Brockovich replies with a mean-spirited, "That's all you got is two wrong feet and f*cking ugly shoes!" When a fat woman in the office pisses her off, she calls her "Krispy Kreme." (Side note: were Krispy Kreme donuts even popular back when this story took place?) Again, knowing a person like this in real life might test even the most mellow of demeanors, but for a movie character we only have to know for two hours, it makes for some fun.

Finally, bonus points go out to Albert Finney, who portrays what could be the first truly likable lawyer in cinema history.


WHAT'S BAD

While the courtroom portion of this movie is somewhat enthralling, the other half that deals with Brockovich's personal redemption leaves something to be desired. The character is, often times, downright mean, making her someone I am reluctant to get to know. As such, the moments that try to paint her as a nice, good-hearted girl seem somewhat contrived. I found it outrageous that someone who was so disrespectful to others had the nerve to demand respect from everyone else. Hey, take it like you dish it, babe. If there's anyone I really sympathized with, it was her biker boyfriend played by Aaron Eckhart, obviously a poor schmuck who fell for her because of her looks. Just examine the opening dialogue Brockovich has with him when they first meet: it's absolutely hostile. If some butt-ugly chick talked to people like that, her dance card would not be full.

Some of the more subtle moments, like a broke Brockovich taking her hungry kids out to dinner but only ordering coffee for herself, pleasantly demonstrated a rare realism. But mostly, though, the "soft" moments were blatant outcries, like when she goes off on her soapbox: "For the first time, I have people respecting me...I've never had that before."

Overall, fans of Julia Roberts and/or this type of drama will find that the positives outweigh most of the Hollywood contrivances. But there's something to be said for subtlety in storytelling, and the most annoying thing is just how many times this movie needs to rile up the audience and get them to shout, "You go, girl!!!"


Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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Movie Review: The Insider






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