12 August 2000 | Buddy-51
dazzling performance by Julia Roberts
In its story, `Erin Brockovich' breaks little new ground. Essentially, it joins the ranks of earlier films such as `Silkwood,' `The Insider,' `A Civil Action,' `The Rainmaker,' among others, each of which tells the tale of a common `David' (be it in the form of a whistleblowing employee or compassionate, righteous lawyer) who, against all odds, mounts a seemingly quixotic crusade against a corporate Goliath. All the above five films expose the shoddy and often malevolent business practices of companies that have resulted in major health care crises for both their own employees as well as the residents who live near the companies' facilities. In the case of `Erin Brockovich,' the villain is the PG&E electrical plant located in the desert community of Hinckley, near Barstow, California. It seems that the residents of this small town have been experiencing a mind-bogglingly high number of serious illnesses and miscarriages that PG&E has assured them are not in any way related to the activities at their site. The company has even brought in medical professionals and toxicologists to assuage the residents' growing fears. Almost by chance, Erin Brockovich stumbles onto this information and takes up the challenge of fighting for the rights of these victims and exposing PG&E's gross malfeasance in the process.
Looking at its bare-boned plotting, one must concede that there really isn't much that is new here. However, thanks to a pair of utterly smashing performances by Julia Roberts and Albert Finney and a beautifully well-rounded portrait of a real-life heroine, this Steven Soderbergh film emerges as a true crowd-pleasing triumph. This may, in fact, be not only Roberts' best performance, but her finest role as well. Erin is not a conventional do-gooder heroine. First of all, she is often abrasive and off-putting in her demeanor. Dressed more like a fashion devotee of Roberts' `Pretty Woman' call girl character than a serious legal executive, Erin often launches into unrestrained, obscenity-laced tirades at her boss, her loving boyfriend, even the corporate lawyer bigwigs sent to help her when the case she is making comes close to completion. Yet, it is just this no-nonsense directness that earns her the confidence of the people she is trying so desperately to help. A twice-divorced mother of three, she is as passionate in the defense of her own children as she is in the defense of her case. Yet, she is a woman made up of any number of internal contradictions. Much as she loves her children, she has made a shambles of her life in recent years. Rootless and lacking the skills necessary to procure a well-paying job, she practically has to beg to get hired in the office of a lawyer who has failed to win her a settlement in a traffic accident case. Staunchly individualistic, she refuses to tone down her rhetoric or her temper or to adopt the more `professional' attire of the business world even if it might mean that she would be taken more seriously by those around her. She assumes that no man would be willing to consider having a serious relationship with her because of her children and marital track record, yet, when a man enters her life doing just that, her insecurities and her intense commitment to the cause for which she is fighting begin to drive him away and her children as well. Most fascinatingly, perhaps, we are led to wonder whether it is really the suffering people who motivate her obsessive commitment or rather, as she herself admits, the personal recognition she receives now when she walks into a room and people clamor desperately to know what she thinks on an issue. All credit to Susannah Grant for writing a character so full of believable paradoxes. Obnoxious as Erin is at times, her innate vitality, wisdom and warm-hearted compassion consistently shine forth. Grant, by making her such a three-dimensional figure, mitigates much of the incredibility that lies at the root of this story, true though it may be.
And, given this juicy role, Roberts is nothing short of a revelation. She conveys each conflicting mood and character trait perfectly. Never before has this actress brought such a breezy assurance to her every action and statement. She literally holds this rich film together, forcing us to focus intently on the storm of emotions taking place deep inside this complex woman. This is definitely Oscar-caliber work. Equally brilliant is Albert Finney as Ed Masry, the lawyer for whom Erin works, a jovial, easygoing man who watches with a bemused appreciation as Erin hurls colorful invective at him, rages against the system and dresses down with withering sarcasm not only the legal representatives from PG&E but the seasoned lawyers Masry himself has hired to help bring home the case. One of Erin's most endearing traits is that she is an equal opportunity harridan a fact that wins Masry over every bit as much as it does us.
If `Erin Brockovich' has a weakness, it comes in the form of Erin's romantic relationship with the unemployed motorcycle rider next door. He seems simply too good to be true, and, although we know that it is necessary to fill in this particular part of Erin's life to make her portrait a well-rounded and complete one, it is still the least interesting and believable part of the tale. We feel we are being too often distracted from the meaty center of the story.
Still, this is a minor quibble about a film that works so beautifully on so many levels. As Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts has finally found the role uniquely suited to her enormous talents and she blazes forth more brightly than she has ever done before. I, for one, will be roundly rooting for her come Oscar night.