Steven Soderbergh was at a peculiar juncture in his career when he signed on to direct the 2000 true-story drama Erin Brockovich. After winning the Palme D'or at Cannes and creating an arthouse hit (when those were quite a bit more rare) with 1989's sex, lies, and videotape, he'd spent the ensuing decade failing to replicate either that film's critical or financial success. Though he staged a remarkable comeback with the terrific 1998 film Out of Sight--a box-office disappointment, but a smash with critics--and the masterful 1999 indie The Limey, he still hadn't proven he could create a hit.
Brockovich found him working with Julia Roberts, who was banking a cool $20 million for the role. What is fascinating about the film, then and now, is how Soderbergh approaches the task of making a crowd-pleasing star vehicle without putting the audience (or himself) to sleep. There is none of the experimentation of The Limey, or even the non-linear leaps of Out of Sight. He is out to neither dazzle nor innovate, but to entertain. But his touches are there, in his approach to the material and diffusing of its more familiar tropes. It is a simple film, but still a smart one.
Roberts (in a series of tiny skirts and astonishingly effective Wonderbras) plays the title role, a single mother of three desperate for a job. She ends up getting one at the office of Ed Masry (Albert Finney) the lawyer who represents her following a bad car crash. They lose her case after she loses her temper and unleashes a stream of profanity at the defendant, and her high hemlines and low-down language don't exactly endear her to her co-workers, either. But she starts poking around in a pro-bono case that Masry's working on, a property dispute that ends up leading her and the firm into a giant class-action suit between Pacific Gas & Electric and the residents of Hinkley, California. It seems that the energy giant hasn't taken sufficient pains to keep a dangerous chemical out of the local groundwater, and the folks in Hinkely are getting sick at alarming rates.
Erin Brockovich was a real woman, and the Hinkley case represented the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit. That makes it an interesting story; it doesn't make it cinema. Thankfully, Soderbergh's allergy to melodrama--and the intelligence of the screenplay by Susannah Grant (with an uncredited assist by Richard LaGravenese)--steers the picture clear of TV-movie territory. First, it's a personal story of a woman who thinks she has no skills, but discovers something that she is genuinely good at: connecting the dots, knocking on doors, relating with people, grinding out a case. Some of that is dramatized in conventional ways (yes, there are montages), but much of it comes across in the moments the filmmakers choose to use in those interviews with potential plaintiffs, less big pronouncements than small talk and chit-chat. That same informality is key to the scenes with Erin and her kids, which have a loose, naturalistic, improvisational feel--a spontaneity that contrasts the kind of lock-step that true narratives so often fall into.
And though the film must give our heroine a fading romance to test the resolve of her commitment to her case, it's done here with a complicating of gender roles that's quite captivating. The object of her affection is biker neighbor George (played by Aaron Eckhart, almost unrecognizable after his clean-cut breakthrough in In The Company of Men), and Soderbergh stages the courtship in quiet dialogue scenes and offhand moments, while the little pieces of their post-coital afterglow are assembled in a manner that recalls early Godard. George picks up jobs piecemeal, so he starts out as her babysitter before becoming her lover, and once they're an item, she works long hours while he takes care of the kids and nags her for attention. It becomes a fascinating portrait of a modern man who might not be quite as progressive as he'd like to be. "There may be men out there who don't mind being a maid and getting nothing in return," he tells her, "but I sure as shit ain't one of 'em." The been-there nature of their conflict is immeasurably more interesting because of the role reversal, and more poignant because of Erin's personal growth. "All I've ever done is bend my life around what men said they need," she tells him, and she's not going to do that anymore. It's a sharp and powerful moment, and the fact that it comes from the mouth of a woman who is often overtly sexual (indeed, she's not above using her sexuality to get the job done) makes this a too-rare acknowledgment of the complexities of modern femininity.
Eckhart isn't the only valuable supporting player; Marg Helgenberger is warm and heartbreaking, beautifully carrying the emotion at the picture's end, while Cherry Jones is immediately plausible as the tough resident Erin must get on her team. And then there's Albert Finney, who (we forget) was nominated for an Oscar for his work here, and might've deserved that statue, if for no other reason than the pleasure of his slow burn. Much of his work is reactive--his priceless cutaways during first meeting with the big, bad PG&E lawyers, the little spring in his step on his last exit, the way he looks everywhere but at Erin's chest after her matter-of-fact "They're called boobs, Ed" line, and his gleeful response to the smarmy junior lawyer's jab about how much money PG&E has at their disposal.
The picture occasionally indulges in easy wins, like Erin telling the hapless water department clerk "I wanna know how the hell you sleep at night," and the camera holding on his helpless expression. (As a general rule, there's probably a couple too many scenes that end with shots of her fuming, bested foils.) But that's part of the pleasure the film takes in its leading character, and its leading lady, and both are understandable. Roberts delivers a fierce, entertaining, take-no-prisoners performance, reminiscent of the kind of barn-burners Barbara Stanwyk or Joan Crawford used to deliver. She bangs that "take that number and multiply it by a hundred" speech like a drum, and tosses in the "we had that water brought in special for you" tag like a great punchline; she puts across a stunning mixture of emotions when she finds out she missed her baby's first words. Sure, it's a scene that plays like an Oscar clip. They played it as one. She won the Oscar. And she earned it.
Video & Audio:
Universal hasn't always done right by their catalog releases, but the VC-1 encoded video presentation here is quite pleasing. This was Soderbergh's last film with a cinematographer other than himself; the great Ed Lachtmann (Todd Haynes's frequent collaborator) shot it, and his sunny photography is appealing throughout. The color scheme is somewhat similar to Out of Sight's, with plenty of blown-out, arid desert scenes, some sun-soaked cityscapes, and a couple of cold blues (particularly a haunting dusk scene). The saturation is sharp throughout, while the image sports fine dimension and a touch of grain. I may have spied a couple of moments of fleeting DVR in the close-ups, but the image is mostly well textured and nicely cinematic.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track doesn't have much use for the rear channels, even in outdoor scenes, but the front-and-center dialogue is clear, audible, and evenly modulated, while the basslines of Thomas Newman's excellent score put a little oomph into the LFE channel.
French and Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Disappointingly, all we've really got here are carryovers from the 2000 DVD and Universal promo materials. Soderbergh did not do an audio commentary for that original disc (and that's not remedied here), though he does offer up a fine commentary for the collection of Deleted Scenes (30:07). Those scenes are all good, clearly cut solely for time, and Sodebergh's commentary is (as usual) informative and wry, making us wish (again) that he'd done one for the feature itself. The old "Spotlight on Location" (15:12) and "Erin Brockovich: A Look at a Real Life Experience" (3:58) featurettes also make the transition, as does the original Theatrical Trailer (2:33)
The only new bonus features are the "100 Years of Universal" featurettes that are presumably going out with all of the discs in this series: "Award Winners" (9:35)and "The Lot" (9:25). The disc is also BD-Live enabled and comes with a copy of the earlier standard-def DVD and instructions for online downloading of an iTunes and Windows Media-ready Digital Copy.
Over the past decade, Soderbergh has continued to tackle conventional genre films--the heist movie, the disaster film, the action flick--and find ways to shake them up, to stay within the frame but color outside the lines. Erin Brockovich is a good, sturdy, "well-made" film--and, in its distinctive little ways, it is refreshingly more.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.