What could have been just another based-on-a-true-story, common-man-triumphs-against-corporate-greed potboiler is made into something just a little better, thanks to the thousand-watt charisma of Ms. Julia Roberts as the title character in “Erin Brockovich.”
She is amply assisted, though, by Albert Finney as her lawyer/boss Ed Masry, and Aaron Eckhart as her neighbor/boyfriend George. Both are given more than supporting roles, often speaking dialogue that is both funnier and more real-sounding than Erin’s.
They also help to keep her grounded. As the film’s previews have shown, much to the hooting and delight of audiences, Erin has quite a sassy mouth on her. Unfortunately, that sass is often unwarranted, being directed at people who have not done her any harm. Ed and George both try to tame the wild, insecure beast that is Erin Brockovich. More on that later.
The plot: Erin is a twice-divorced mother of three, unemployed and unemployable, having married too early to develop any marketable skills. After a car accident, her foul mouth on the witness stand loses for her what should have been an open-and-shut case, and in an act of desperation, she goes to her lawyer and demands he give her a job.
What, as a lawyer? No, silly. That would be fiction. This is real life. He gives her a job as a person who files things. Her penchant for wearing cleavage-oriented clothing and high heels makes her a misfit in an office full of modest, full-figured gals, as does that aforementioned potty language, which tends to direct at anyone who suggests that maybe if she’d quit talking and dressing like a floozy, people would treat her with some respect.
In the process of filing papers, Erin discovers that Pacific Gas and Electric bought a bunch of property in the small desert community of Hinkley, Calif., and that they apparently also poisoned the local water with chromium, which would explain their hurry to buy everyone’s property and get them out of there, before the side effects could kick in. (PG&E made sure to lie to the townsfolk about the effects of chromium, too, just in case.)
So Erin convinces lawyer Ed to turn this into a huge case against PG&E, what with pretty much the whole town of Hinkley having some form of cancer or another, and of course they win. This much you can guess from the beginning.
And what makes this better than all the movies like it (“A Civil Action” being a good example) is that the legal story itself is not relied upon too much. Let’s face it, real life is rather boring. What makes it interesting is compelling characters in dramatic situations. Erin’s personal journey — overcoming her insecurities, learning to believe in herself — is every bit as interesting as the legal case, if not more so, and the fact that Erin is allowed to be seriously flawed as a person (and as a character), instead of being the perfect superhero, makes this movie a downright curiosity.
The movie does get its fair share of Hollywood cliches. When Erin is hot on the trail of the evil PG&E, she gets your standard Threatening Phone Call (“Do you know who you’re dealing with?!”). There are also a few too many shots of cancer-stricken kids, and a mom who says, tearfully, “We’re gonna get them, aren’t we?”
Erin’s relationship with her kids gets generically “strained” as she spends too much time at work. She has exactly two scenes with her 8-year-old son: One in which he is mad at her for never being home, and one in which they are reconciled when he sees all the good she’s doing. So much for developing THAT angle….
Overall, though, “Erin Brockovich” works as an interesting, often funny character drama, and even somewhat as a legal thriller.
B (; )