The Riot Grrrl Next Door

Julia Roberts is a larger-than-life hell-raiser in Erin Brockovich. 

Erin Brockovich
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Universal Pictures 

Have you ever noticed how freaky Julia Roberts is? Everything is outsized—those teeth, those eyes, those coltish gams, that smile that’s wider than most people’s heads. Those feelers, too: She’s such an edgy, hypersensitive creature that she practically gives off a hum, like high-voltage wires. In Erin Brockovich, Roberts has her most galvanic role, and she’s sensationally appealing: In showbiz parlance, she kills. She plays a twice-divorced mother of three who can’t find work and who gets screwed out of an accident claim after her car is totaled by a doctor in a Jaguar. The chip on her shoulder is the size of a linebacker’s pad, so Erin browbeats her way into a job as a secretary for the bleary hack attorney (Albert Finney) who fumbled her injury case, then throws herself into a pro bono suit against Pacific Gas & Electric, the company that powers much of California. It’s no contest, though: PG&E doesn’t have Julia Roberts’ wattage.

The movie is all Julia, all the time. It hasn’t just been tailored for her, it has been sewn onto her, like one of her character’s skintight mini-dresses. Those costumes are cut to show yards of cleavage and miles of thigh; the movie is cut to show epic orneriness and bounteousness of soul. The film, which is based on a true story (the real Erin shows up fleetingly as a waitress), doesn’t account for its heroine’s magical radar for injustice—how she senses from the start that PG&E is responsible for the heartbreakingly high cancer rates in an arid settlement east of Los Angeles. But it doesn’t need to. A former Wichita, Kan., beauty queen, Erin has a dashed sense of entitlement, and when multibillion-dollar corporations tell her to go away or else, they’re ensuring she’ll keep digging into water records. She’s spoiling for a fight.

On paper, the story of Erin Brockovich might seem smugly pat—knee-jerk anti-corporate. But the director, Steven Soderbergh, keeps the menace vague, the horror intangible. He and his great cinematographer, Ed Lachman, don’t force the idea that this landscape is malignant. But the poison is implicit in the harsh light and baked-out colors and in the flags that blow clank-clank in the hot breeze: In one shot the movie establishes those devil winds the Santa Anas. Some people thought the jump-cuts in TheLimey (1999) were too ostentatious, but that kind of reckless experimentation can lead to the sort of fluid mastery that Soderbergh displays here. This time, he mostly lays back. He keeps a compassionate distance from the movie’s cancer victims—he lets you see them through Erin’s eyes and share her sense of helplessness.

Focusing on something outside herself and her own messed-up personal life gives Erin a miraculous clarity, and that outrage infuses Roberts’ performance. Early in her career, the actress reportedly needed lots of stroking and calming down, like a skittish thoroughbred. But she now has a hard-won self-possession, and the joy of Erin Brockovich is watching her cut loose, talk dirty, stride into an office on those long legs and blast the hell out of anyone in her way. Sometimes the effect is discomfiting, as when she makes fun of overweight secretaries or too-prim female lawyers. (She starts to seem like a distaff Eddie Murphy.) But whenever she gives it to Finney, it’s movie magic, because he’s as outsized as she is and a lot more insulated.

I t’s hard to remember Finney as a lean and beautiful boy, because he has learned to use his thickness with such sly wit. He plays a man who has made his peace with having become a hack, and he uses his extra flesh to keep the world at bay. He’s not used to someone getting under that beefy exterior, and when Erin whales on him he bellows in incomprehension. (More and more, Finney’s voice resembles John Huston’s, with its plangent belching rumble.) But Erin does more than goad this tired old man. She revives the warrior in him, and you can taste Finney’s relish in tugging on his cheap suit jacket and tying his ugly tie and leaving his paneled office to do battle with the corporate Goliath. He comes to bask in Erin’s sexy glow—even to revel in unleashing her working-class feminist rage on his startled adversaries. This is a glorious performance.

The script, by Susannah Grant, is a smooth piece of work with some wonderfully spiky badinage. Grant handles Erin’s romance with her next-door neighbor (an unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart from In the Company of Men, 1997) with a light touch: The joke is that she turns the bearded, burly motorcyclist into Mr. Mom while she goes off to war. The screenplay’s only real flaw is structural, and it’s possibly built into the story. The film suggests that arbitration (as opposed to a potentially more lucrative jury trial) is the only way to go in light of the absence of a “smoking gun”—proof that PG&E officials at the San Francisco corporate headquarters knew of the dangerous levels of chromium in the groundwater and chose to do nothing about it. But when a key piece of evidence does emerge, the lawyers stick with their original strategy and the resolution comes too fast. It’s a bit of a letdown that the bad guys at PG&E remain so faceless and that the only resident (the eloquent Cherry Jones) resistant to Erin’s charms succumbs with so little fuss. You could also argue that climaxing with Erin’s bonus check smacks of insensitivity. I would, but that’s the legal profession for you.

But the last scene has a different agenda; it leaves Erin Brockovich poised to segue into a long-running TV drama with next year’s (tall) Calista Flockhart and some Ed Asner type as her gruff boss. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Ally McBeal needs a counterweight, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show could use an update. Instead of a hapless woman whose lovable dithering inspires a mix of fatherly, brotherly, and lustful feelings in her male counterparts, why not make America’s sweetheart a busting-out firebrand with a lively capacity for outrage and a filthy mouth? There’s a role model for my daughter.