It's the other half of Steven Soderbergh's golden 2000, along with Traffic
. That year, he became the first man to beat himself to a Best Director Oscar, along with the small matter of three more Oscars for Traffic
and another for Julia Roberts as Best Actress in this film. It was also Oscar-nominated for Best Director (which you knew), Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Albert Finney).
It's okay. I quite liked it.
I knew almost nothing about this film, but in fact there's a real Erin Brockovich out there. She's a consultant for a law firm and more recently, thanks to this movie, a TV presenter. Her achievement was to help build a record-breaking legal case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993, despite having had no legal training. That's the story of this film. We begin with an intertitle saying "this is a true story", which is lucky since it makes the movie's events feel much more real and important to know that. If it were just fiction, it would be slow and maybe a bit dull, but it's not. We're seeing a real-life injustice being uncovered and the culprits being made to pay. It's a bit like watching a documentary, which I hasten to say is a good thing. I was always interested, despite the running time, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved at the end when Roberts brings the good news to one of their clients.
The story's pretty linear, though. This isn't a plotty movie. Instead it's a Julia Roberts movie. She's good, needless to say, although you probably wouldn't have guessed that this would have won her an Oscar, since it's not a "look at me" performance. The film's tone is down-to-earth and Roberts's character is a hard-as-nails mouth on legs, all cleavage and attitude. This costs her a bunch of money in a court case at the start of the film. Not everyone has people skills. Early in the film she's almost brutal in her determination to find work and look after her three children, but in the end she gets emotionally involved with the people who've been being poisoned by PG&E.
Oddly, by the way, she's not attractive here. She's too flinty and abusive for that, despite all those low-cut tops. She's aware of her sex appeal, but mostly as something that can occasionally be useful. "They're called boobs, Ed."
Albert Finney is the film's other secret weapon. Did I mention Albert Finney? I'd have watched the film earlier if I'd known he had a big role in it. He's not getting flowery or anything, but he's still lovely in the role of this unsentimental old man. He's the guy who owns the little law firm that Erin bullies into taking the case. He doesn't want it, oddly enough. In a no-win no-fee legal system, it's asking a lot to expect a small-town firm to take on a multi-billion dollar corporation in a case that could take years. He's got bills to pay, like anyone else. If you've only ever seen lawyers portrayed as sharks on legs, this is the other side of that.
It can be funny. Roberts vs. lawyers is where the film's at its most entertaining, while the hairy tattooed biker next door made me laugh. (He's not what you think.)
To be honest, I don't have very much to say about this one. It's realistic and understated. It made me cry, but only a little bit. It made me laugh, but again not too much. It's unsentimental, trying not to be too movie-like and deliberately underplaying the sob story stuff. There's one moment to choke you up when the woman who's just been diagnosed with a malignant tumour asks Roberts to promise that "we're going to get them", but that's unusual in a movie that's trying its best to be down-to-earth.
By the way, the real Erin Brockovich has a cameo role as a waitress, called Julia Roberts. Well, "Julia R". Roberts also famously forgot to thank her in her Oscar acceptance speech. I liked this film. It's good. Roberts commands attention and the story has enough power in its own right that I'm happy with Soderbergh's decision not to embellish. Roger Ebert thinks it loses something in comparison with other "crusade against the man" films like Silkwood (Meryl Streep) and A Civil Action (John Travolta), but I haven't seen those and I thought this was fine. It's not the kind of film you fall madly in love with and watch over and over, but that was a deliberate choice from Soderbergh and I respect that.
Julia Roberts's pay cheque here made her the first actress ever to top $20m for one movie, incidentally.