(director: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriter: Susannah Grant; cinematographer: Ed Lachman; editor: Anne V. Coates; cast: Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Albert Finney (Ed Masry), Aaron Eckhart (George), Cherry Jones (Pamela Duncan), Peter Coyote (Kurt Potter), Veanne Cox (Theresa Dallavale), Marg Helgenberger (Donna Jensen); Runtime: 130; Universal; 2000)

“A feel good, old-fashioned (except for all the cuss words), liberal message movie for the people …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A feel good, old-fashioned (except for all the cuss words), liberal message movie for the people and by the people, resulting in a populist film. It surprised me in how invigorating a performance there was from Julia Roberts (her inane charms usually turn me off), and how there was such a good chemistry between her and the gruff Albert Finney. He is a sleazy lawyer and her boss. Julia stole all the scenes in the film (she was paid 20 million bucks to be a star). But the subtle performance by the rumpled looking Finney playing second fiddle without a hint of a complaint, was the key to the film’s success.

This true story tells how the Julia Roberts character, Erin Brockovich, collected evidence against a giant California utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, and even though she has no formal training as a lawyer and is uneducated, her firm, mainly through her persistent efforts, was able to win the largest U.S. settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit: $330 million.

Erin, as the twice-divorced mother of three toddlers, shakes her ass, exposes her boobs, and manages to stop her rotten luck by landing a job in the same law firm she came to as a client in a car accident. She was hit by a rich doctor who was speeding through a street crossing. Appearing in court for the lawsuit wearing a neck brace, she nevertheless loses her slam-dunk case when the opposing lawyer baits her to react with a volley of curse words on the stand. Straddled with bills the former beauty queen from Wichita bullies the boss, Ed Masry (Finney), into giving her a chance to work there as a secretary, but without benefits.

Erin’s desperate life as a single parent revolves around her trying to be a good mother to her children. But her dependable baby-sitter moves out and the next one she hires is not dependable. Her new next-door neighbor turns out to be a Harley biker enthusiast, George (Aaron). He is attracted to her and doesn’t seem to be daunted when she tells him of her meager bank account and all her children. He ends up being her boyfriend and baby-sitter. His role is a paper-thin one as the sensitive, long-suffering lover. It reminds me of the role Hollywood usually reserves for the sweet but simple lady co-star, who is just around to make the star look good.

Erin has a quick wit, a winning smile, a sewer for a mouth, is impulsive, is willing to show her cleavage, and can sexily flaunt her feminine assets in the faces of all the men she encounters without having to be a slut. Julia Roberts’s breasts are propped up and very noticeable, wearing tight-fitting clothes with low necklines, at all times. When told by the boss: “You might want to rethink your wardrobe a little.” She retorts, “I think I look nice, and as long as I have one ass instead of two, I’ll wear what I like.”

Erin soon stumbles upon something fishy in a pro bono case the boss asks her to look at. There are medical records in the file of this real estate case, which strikes her as being odd. The boss, whose small law firm mainly does ambulance-chasing work, gives her permission to go see Donna Jensen (Marg). Erin finds out, during that visit, about the family’s sickness due to the toxic hexavalent chromium in the water and of the utility company paying all the medical bills, as long as the family goes to the company’s doctor.

It turns out that thegas company is evilly hiding the fact that it has polluted the ground water and is apparently responsible for death and disease, for hundreds of people living in that working-class community of Southern California.

Erin spends the rest of the film making house calls on the victims, rounding them up for the class-action suit, and juggling her home life with her new career. The film was all about Erin, as it only shows the pain Julia feels for them not the actual pain of the victims. This one’s all about Julia Roberts and if you buy into her for the part, you are more than likely to be pleased with the film. I found myself accepting this political conscience message of the film. Where I saw the film, the same type of working-class clients of Julia’s were in the audience and were laughing lustily at the jokes and they seemed to enjoy seeing this big company being taken on by one of them.

This mainstream film by Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape/Out of Sight/The Limey)is shot in a sitcom conventional style, without most of the director’s usual artistic flourishes. There have been many Hollywood films of this type, including, Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Norma Rae, with this film somewhere in the middle of the entertainment scale when held up in comparison.