I’m going to get this out of the way first thing; I think Erin Brockovich is Steven Soderbergh’s worst film (of the canonical works; Yes: 9012Live mops the floor with it in terms of badness/blandness). Of course, given my taste for his work, that ultimately doesn’t mean too much, but it still has some problems for me beyond “Nicky Katt and Eddie Jemison aren’t in it”. It feels like the one time when Soderbergh chafes a bit under the weight of a story; he can make a satisfying heist movie/tawdry thriller/meat-and-potatoes action movie/whatever I left off of here and have a ball in the process, but here, Soderbergh’s signature is a bit buried by the standardness of the story he’s telling. There are some pretty easy, cheap beats with the variety of cold, passionless people Brockovich goes up against with her homespun warmth in her fight for justice for those poisoned by toxins unleashed by natural gas giant Pacific Gas and Electric Company (including ones on her own side, not to mention the monstrously faceless PG&E corporate goons she has to face off with), and that can become more than a bit much for over two hours (Soderbergh, in his commentary on the film’s deleted scenes, seems to believe he could’ve done more to cut it down, and he’s probably right). And by the end, Soderbergh has to make way for the typical legal movie beats, and you can almost sense him twiddling his thumbs behind the camera during these parts, amusing himself only by making Fletcher Munson’s boss one of the plaintiffs in the case. Of course, as much as I’m not a huge fan of Soderbergh getting out of the way for parts of this story, that probably makes this his most necessary film in terms of his career, in that it showed that he could get out of the way, and he was granted a pass to stay in the way to his heart’s desire on later projects as a result of this.
Okay, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk about things that I like about the movie. First off, for all the complaints her Oscar win for this movie gets, Julia Roberts genuinely is really, really good in this. She pitches her performance at an almost perfect mixture of movie-star glamour and blue-collar salt, and she’s a perfect lead to get the audience’s sympathies without going into cutesy-poo. And yet Albert Finney is even better as Brockovich’s boss, Ed Masry, allowing him the opportunity for some extraordinary deadpan with his wide array of fantastic reaction shots to Brockovich’s candor (any serious fan of the art of reaction shots owes it to themselves to study this film and Finney’s performance at length). Also, I’ve already kinda badmouthed the script, but I’d be lying if I said some of the venom writer Susannah Grant puts in Brockovich’s mouth isn’t delightful, and I’d definitely be lying if I said that I wasn’t ultimately pleased by it (hey, writing crowdpleasers that please more than just crowds is a decent-sized accomplishment). And Thomas Newman’s keyboard-driven score is typically wonderful. But, as always, the best part is the Soderbergh factor. While Soderbergh may have trouble with the story/script, his direction is top-notch as always, working in conjunction with DoP extraordinaire Edward Lachman’s cinematography to combine naturalism with undeniable prettiness (dig those syrupy, sun-baked images) in a way that suits the story and Roberts’ performance (this is the final film that Soderbergh would shoot with a DoP besides himself, and the visuals here are so casually assured that you get the feeling of “Your training is complete” watching it). And the two work together (Soderbergh reusing the jagged cuts of their last collaboration, The Limey) to create one of the greatest scenes in any Soderbergh film here; a blue-tinted scene of pure primal anger, the soundtrack (besides the score) cut out as the husband of one of the women doomed to die as a result of PG&E uselessly throws rocks at their headquarters in between screams and weeping. And it probably wouldn’t have hit as hard if it came in the middle of a different, more unconventional Soderbergh film! So there.
Erin Brockovich is available to watch on Netflix Instant.