“She brought a big corporation to its knees, and small town to its feet!” So read publicity campaigns for Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000); a superior corporate cover-up melodrama told from the unlikely perspective of an even more improbable heroine. This semi-biographical film transformed a relatively unknown legal researcher into one of the most widely recognizable crusaders for people’s rights. In life, as on film, the real Erin Brockovich is a sassy, outspoken free thinker, unrepentantly gutsy/unapologetically candid, with a penchant for ruffling a few feathers to get to the truth. What Susannah Grant’s screenplay does remarkably well is it refrains from simplifying this larger-than-life powerhouse into a smart-mouthed, broad-minded ‘broad’ of a movie caricature. Of course, only half the credit for keeping Erin Brockovich real can go to Grant’s writing. The other half belongs to actress, Julia Roberts – the last truly memorable star to emerge from the 20th century.
Julia Roberts, who began her career by almost freak accident (visiting her brother Eric on the Paramount back lot, only to be ‘discovered’ and remade a star ten times his calibre in popularity in a string of megawatt hits) has often been unfairly assessed by the critics as ‘lacking range’. While it must be stated that Roberts often plays variations on a theme - the wholesome girl next door lurking just beneath the more obvious trappings of a Hollywood hooker or homespun debutant suffering from a fatal kidney condition – she nevertheless manages to imprint each performance with her own inimitable charm. This radiates genuine warmth and is able to instinctively connect with her audience from beyond those wide-innocent eyes and beaming, garage door sized pearly white smile.
But in Erin Brockovich we get a different Julia than we’re accustom to; a sort of ‘other side of the rainbow’, fractured and fragile mother of three, frustratingly refusing to satisfy her overwhelming detractors by giving in. Our story begins in the summer of 1993 after a perilous auto accident leaves Erin (Julia Roberts) temporarily incapacitated with a neck brace. Erin sues the driver of the other car, a doctor (Jack Gill) no less, and is represented at trial by Edward L. Masry (Albert Finney) who fumbles the ball and loses her case.
Having also lost her job, Erin’s attempts to find suitable employment prove fruitless. In desperation she shows up at the modest law offices of Masry and Vititoe, begging Ed to hire her on as a secretary. Begrudgingly he agrees, stipulating ‘no benefits’. At the office Erin’s ‘suggestive’ wardrobe quietly incurs a frosty reception from the other secretaries, and Brenda (Conchata Ferrell), the portly office manager.
While performing mundane filing duties Erin encounters a case file involving one Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger). It’s a pro bono real estate deal for a backwater flat in Hinkley California. But there are also medical files tucked into the folder. Inquiring to Ed if she can ‘look into’ the particulars of Donna Jensen’s case – and casually encouraged to do so – Erin takes off to visit Donna and her family at their home. What she learns is that a nearby processing plant owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has been using hexavalent chromium to flush out its pipes, thereby creating a known carcinogenetic environment in Hinkley that has already begun to poison its residents.
In the meantime, Erin also begins a rather tempestuous relationship with her new next door neighbour, biker George (Erin Eckhart) who inadvertently incurs Erin’s wrath after revving his motorcycle late one evening in his garage. However, when Erin’s research forces her to spend more time away from her kids, George takes over as babysitter/surrogate father figure to her children, Beth (Emily/Julie Marks), Matthew (Scotty Leavenworth) and Katie (Gemmenne de la Pena).
Erin double-checks her facts about hexavalent chromium with university adjunct processor Brian Frankel (Randy Lowell). She also employs her wily charms on Scott (Jamie Harrold), a nimble-minded spineless desk jockey at the local Water Commission, in order to gain access to the file room where she quietly Xeroxes various crucial documents outlining complicity between the water commission and PG&E. However, upon returning to the office, Erin discovers that Ed has fired her for failing to report in to work regularly. After a brief altercation Erin goes home, leaving her research on Ed’s desk.
An apologetic Ed shows up at Erin’s home to inform her that there just might be a case against PG&E. He hires her back – with benefits – and Erin begins to gather support amongst Hinkley’s residents to pursue a class action suit against the company. PG&E send their new bee legal representative (T.J. Thyne) to make a pathetic offer on behalf of the company if Masry and Vititoe will just quietly forget about the case. But Ed and Erin make short order of him. They have no intention of letting things go.
Erin visits the home of Ted (Wade Williams) and Rita Daniels (Cordelia Richards), whose daughter, Annabelle (Kristina Malota) is gravely ill and dying of cancer. Annabelle’s medical bills were handled by PG&E whose doctor lied to the Daniels about the true cause of her malady. Meanwhile Ed has hired Theresa Dallavalle (Veanne Cox) and Kurt Potter (Peter Coyote); a pair of high priced legal beagles to headline the case. To Erin it seems as though Ed has sold out all her hard work. She admonishes him for his lack of faith, creating a rift in their partnership.
At a bar outside of Hinkley Erin runs into Charles Embry (Tracey Walter), a mysterious man who has been following her all day. He tells Erin he worked at PG&E and was responsible for destroying hundreds of documents at their request. However, after Charles learned that the medical conditions plaguing workers at the plant were the direct result of hexavalent chromium leaking through PG&E’s unlined storage ponds he refused to partake in any further involvement eradicating the company’s spurious history.
PG&E sends its own pair of high priced attorneys (Don Snell, Michael Shamberg), plus one of the company’s representatives, Ms. Sanchez (Gina Gallego) to challenge Ed and Erin’s claim. But Erin has uncovered a secret memo dating all the way back to 1966 that proves PG&E knew they were deliberately contaminating the waters while doing their utmost to cover up or disavow any direct knowledge if questioned about it. This evidence is presented at trial and PG&E are ordered to pay $333 million equally dispersed amongst the 634 plaintiffs that signed Ed and Erin’s petition.
Erin returns to Donna Jensen’s home with Ed where she presents her with a personal cheque that leads to tears of joy. The next day, Erin and Ed are seen moving the entire law firm into fancy new digs uptown. Ed tells Erin that he has decided to alter their original agreement. At first Erin perceives this to mean he has reduced her pay, and thoroughly admonishes Ed for his skinflint ways. However, when Ed presents Erin with a paystub for a million dollars she becomes utterly speechless, the sum obviously much more than they had originally agreed upon. “Do they teach beauty queens how to say thank you?” Ed playfully asks, “Because you suck at it!”
Erin Brockovich is stand-up-and-cheer, out and out feel good entertainment in the best tradition. Julia Roberts manages a delicate balancing act between her usual pluckiness and the real Brockovich’s more overt disregard for the niceties. Yet even at her most gregariously foul, as when Erin shouts down office manager Brenda with “Oh bite me, Krispy Kreme,” and a few seconds later with “I’m not talkin’ to you, bitch!” we cannot help but feel a sense of sympathetic - if comedic - vindication for the character. Roberts gives us a portrait of this ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore’ female whose surface veneer is as rough as sandpaper, but with an extremely vulnerable center.
There’s a palpable love/hate quality to the relationship between Erin and Ed. Albert Finney – an actor I’ve long admired as one of the finest of any generation – is a loveable curmudgeon herein. In some respects, his Ed Masry is a kindred spirit to Roberts’ Erin, who gets under his skin perhaps because he can see so much of his old crusty self in her defiance towards him.
I can’t say I’m a particular fan of Ed Lachman’s cinematography, with its advanced graininess and blown out contrast levels used to achieve a sort of parchment paper/desert quality to the southern California landscape. I suppose it works in service of the story, but occasionally it can be distracting on the eye. Thomas Newman’s underscoring does a nice quirky job of elevating the inquisitive mood that permeates the film’s investigative plot. All in all, this is a solid, intelligently written and poignantly acted movie that will surely delight and educate. Bottom line: Erin Brockovich is a winner.
Universal’s Blu-ray is pretty spectacular, though not without a few minor flaws. Long ago, Erin Brockovich was released on the now defunct HD DVD format. The transfers are remarkably similar, but the Blu-ray tightens up for a sharper image that maintains the starkness in Ed Lachman’s stylized cinematography. Detail is very strong as are black levels. There are no edge effects or halos, but at times the image can look more video than film-like, but that’s a very minor quibbling as far as I’m concerned. Colours pop.
Thomas Newman’s synthesized score gets its due in this new DTS 5.1 audio mix. Dialogue sounds fantastic and effects in the folio are made more prominent though not in an artificial or distracting way. Good solid effort from Universal that deserves our attention and hard earned dollars. Buy this Blu-ray! It’s a keeper.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)