To celebrate the 20th anniversary of theatrical release of Erin Brockovich, here’s our review from Mar. 17, 2000.
The pre-credits announcement “based on a true story” before a film about real-life triumph over adversity seldom signals the start of something great. It’s not that there aren’t true stories of genuine struggle worth telling, but there don’t seem to be many ways to tell them without plot points placed in accordance with a screenwriting manual and a climactic courtroom showdown.
As might be expected, director Steven Soderbergh (Out Of Sight, sex, lies, and videotape) rises to the task with Erin Brockovich. There’s not an ominously pounding gavel to be found in the true story of the eponymous working-class woman (Julia Roberts), a lowly, almost accidental, employee of an L.A. lawyer (a terrific Albert Finney) whose persistence, resourcefulness, and investigative skill results in an overdue settlement from a California gas and electric company that knowingly poisoned a small town over the course of several decades. While the ins and outs of the case receive adequate explanation, the real focus is on Roberts’ own struggle, fought as much against economic pressure and class prejudice as “the system.”
If Roberts never thoroughly convinces as a twice-divorced single mother of three, it has less to do with her acting than her movie-star familiarity. It’s a fine performance, nicely framed by Soderbergh’s portrayal of working-class life. Employing neither condescension nor glorification (and taking his cues from Jonathan Demme’s work in Citizens’ Band and Melvin And Howard), Soderbergh captures a world in which making every penny count is the first rule of survival, and your professional, if not personal, worth must be continually proven. Together, Roberts and Finney convey a kind of chemistry that has nothing to do with her character’s overtly sexual wardrobe: Her devotion and compassion to a seemingly lost cause stir something in both his head and his quadruple-bypassed heart. A nearly unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart also does well as the Harley-loving neighbor whose affection for Roberts and her children is strained by her near-constant absence.
Erin Brockovich is paced leisurely, but there’s not a wasted moment. By the time it arrives at its pre-ordained conclusion, it’s clear just how hard-won the victory has been, a battle entertainingly and respectfully conveyed without once falling back on an unearned cliché.