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On March 17, 2000, Julia Roberts and Steven Soderbergh brought Erin Brockovich to theaters. The film went on to claim five Oscar nominations at the 73rd Academy Awards and a best actress win for Roberts. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Julia Roberts marches through Erin Brockovich like a force of nature. Granted, the movie gives her all of the best lines — to say nothing of its most eye-catching wardrobe. But the actress seizes the film’s eponymous role with fire-in-her-eyes possessiveness and injects the character with all the energy and drive she can muster. Her performance is a true star turn, one that should make this Universal/Columbia production from Jersey Films into a solid hit.
Based on a real person, the movie tells the hard-to-believe yet true story of Erin Brockovich, a foul-mouthed ex-beauty queen, given to wearing skin-tight skirts and revealing blouses, who as a low-wage employee at a small law firm managed to put together a huge lawsuit over contaminated water. The $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. was the largest in U.S. history.
But Susannah Grant’s shrewdly written screenplay shies away from courtrooms and judges’ chambers, the kinds of things that caused A Civil Action to bog down. More akin to Silkwood or Norma Rae, the film zeroes in on a woman’s voyage of self-discovery brought about by a passionate conviction that a serious wrong must be righted.
The plaintiffs are people just like her — struggling blue-collar workers and their families, whose well-beings are jeopardized by corporate indifference and disdain.
Crisply directed by Steven Soderbergh, who is fast becoming one of the most reliable directors working within the studio system, the production uses its first act simply to let the viewer get to know Erin Brockovich. With three kids and two ex-husbands, the unemployed single mom is down on her luck before a car accident causes her to rack up medical bills.
When her suit against the other driver ends in failure, she all but blackmails her lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) into hiring her to work at his Los Angeles law firm. Thoroughly disliked by the other female employees, who feel uncomfortable with her mode of dress and colorful language, Erin nevertheless throws herself into the job.
While setting up a file for a pro bono real estate account, she stumbles across medical records that confuse her. Investigating, she discovers a poisoning of the water supply in California’s Mojave Desert and a cover-up by PG&E.
Leaving her kids in the care of her boyfriend and next-door neighbor, a biker named George (Aaron Eckhart), she travels hundreds of miles in her beat-up car to visit potential victims. She emotionally connects with these folks because her concerns are genuine and her passion unmistakable. But the detective work takes a toll on her own family, causing her kids to feel abandoned and her boyfriend to split.
Central to the story is the relationship between Erin and her boss, an aging, small-potatoes lawyer who hopes to wind down his practice only to have his fire-breathing employee thrust him into the biggest — and costliest — case of his career. “I really hate you sometimes,” he says to Erin. He does so with a laugh, but there’s no doubt he means it, too.
Finney is marvelous in his scenes with Roberts. He lets her dominate without diminishing his rumpled character one bit. The love-hate relationship between these people from different generations gives the drama much of its comic spin.
Cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Phil Messina and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland bring us into the blue-collar neighborhoods and poor desert communities along with the downtown high-rise law offices, firmly establishing the class conflict that is the heart of the lawsuit. Each world seldom sees — and certainly never welcomes — interlopers from the other. Yet Erin brashly knocks down all barriers without any concern for whose feathers get ruffled.
Soderbergh lets the details of these polar-opposite worlds seep the story ever forward. Smooth editing by Anne V. Coates lets the legal and investigative scenes get reduced to simple, telling shots.
This is a long movie, and certain repetition does creep in. Nevertheless, there is never a dull moment. Not with Roberts taking charge. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on March 6, 2000.
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