2000

Film #432: Erin Brockovich (2000)

It’s very rare that a director gets two films entered into the Best Picture category in the same year, although we’ve seen it several times throughout the challenge. However, it’s even rarer when that person competes against themselves in the Best Director category. This event did occur at the 2001 ceremony when Steven Soderbergh was nominated for directing Best Picture nominees Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Not only did he go on to win the award for directing, his films brought in five Oscars between the two of them.

Erin Brockovich only got one of these five wins however it was in a pretty prestigious category, that of Best Actress. The recipient of this award was Julia Roberts who, after years of being viewed primarily as a multi-million dollar movie star, redeemed herself in the eyes of the audience by playing the brassy single mother of the title. Erin Brockovich resembles several other movies that have won their leading actress the top prize, most notably Norma Rae. Just like Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich was a character who fought for what she believed in even if she was a small fish in a big pond. Initially barging her way into a job at a legal firm at which she had previously been a client, Erin soon takes interest in a family whose have had an offer made on their house by Pacific Gas and Electric. As Erin begins to investigate the case further, she learns that the company had been using chromium in the water in a plant just outside Hinkley, California. As a result, the surrounding residents had gradually begun to develop various illnesses, with a few suffering from cancer. Whilst Erin takes on this crusade her neighbour, and later lover, George takes on the kids but finds it hard playing mum. Eventually, Erin and lawyer Ed gain the attention of PG&E and the two sides fight to get their cases heard in court. Although Erin Brockovich is definitely a legal drama of sorts it’s one that focuses on the effects the outcome of the case will have on the characters rather than the courtroom battles themselves.

Despite the themes of underdogs taking on the big corporations being a rather cliched topic; Erin Brockovich feels fresh for the most part even if it does give in to stereotypes from time to time. The one stereotype that I wasn’t a fan of was the way that writer Susannah Grant demonstrated Erin’s coarse nature by having her swear every five minutes. The promiscuous clothing that Roberts wore was similarly tactless although her ample cleavage did provide one of the film’s most memorable scenes. However I felt where the film was successful was in making these characters feel real and how Grant was able to set up the story rather nimbly. Before the first half hour was out I felt I knew Ed, Erin and George all really well and that’s a testament to both Grant and Soderbergh. Additionally I felt that the cast succeeded in fleshing out their characters with Roberts giving some extra weight to the character of Erin. She was able to portray her character’s steely nature and combine it with a fear of being left to raise three children with no money.
As harassed small-town lawyer Ed, I found Albert Finney to be equally strong and played the perfect foil to Roberts’ Erin. Meanwhile I found Aaron Eckhart to make the most of his role as sensitive biker George who found playing second fiddle to Erin’s law work just a bit too much to handle. After an intriguing first half as we, along with Erin, learn about the problems in Hinkley, the second half drags a little as we sit through one interview after another. The final scenes, where Erin reveals how much money the people of Hinkley are going to receive, is a little underwhelming but thankfully so much has been done to make us care about the characters that this is simply a minor quibble. Ultimately Erin Brockovich is a character drama first and foremost and thanks to the Oscar-winning Roberts, Soderbergh and Grant it succeeds at presenting a sympathetic protagonist who we root for throughout.

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