33 – Erin Brockovich

Somehow, I get the feeling Julia Roberts was a little tired of playing the cutsie role all the time. Sure, she has nice legs and a dazzling set of bright whites, but can the lady act? For most people, that question’s pretty immaterial – she’s appealing, and that’s good enough. Still, anytime you see the word “vehicle” – as in “Julia Roberts vehicle” – you know what kind of movie you’re going to see. So maybe Roberts was just ready for something new.

That “something new,” as it turns out, was this movie. Erin Brockovich is a real person, a tough, savvy, intelligent lady who kind of fell into a job working for a lawyer and, through a lot of – pardon the pun – leg work, helped break open a case for said lawyer about poisoned water. It’s possible the Erin in the movie is a lot like the Adrian Cronauer in 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam – that is to say, a little fictionalized. But it’s not my job to pass judgement on how accurate a character may be, it’s to pass judgement on how entertaining a movie may be.

Erin Brockovich (Roberts) isn’t the luckies of women. She has three kids (one is an infant) and has gone through two apparently no-good husbands. She’s smart, but she can’t hold on to a job, at least partly because she needs to take care of her kids. She lives in a low-rent trailer park and has a ton of bills that aren’t getting paid. And to make life even less fun, she’s involved in a hit-and-run accident (as the hittee, not the hitter). So she goes to a lawyer named Ed (Albert Finney) to sue, but loses. Miffed, she calls Ed over and over to complain – when he doesn’t reply, she simply shows up and starts working for him. (Ah, if only that could work for all of us!)

All of this takes place in the first 30 minutes or so. Pretty ho-hum stuff, really; I care less about her background than I do about the main plotline of the story – the civil suit involving icky drinking water. Too much exposition, if you ask me. But once Erin begins working on the case, it picks up a bit. More and more clients are found to fight against the Evil Corporation (another staple of courtroom dramas), and eventually Ed finds a partner to help with the case. But of course our Erin has her nose all out of joint about it and causes a stink when she feels that a prim associate of the new gang is looking down on her. But once that little discomfort is alleviated, we proceed on with the case – a true story, and very compelling – all the way to its (expected) denoument.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think I’d rank this among Roberts’ best work. But I won’t lay too much of the blame on her, either. Whether you like Julia Roberts or not, the character (as written) was almost always caustic, abrasive, ready to fight everyone and hardly ever showing pity, remorse, or compassion. I realize, however, that anyone who had suffered as much as Erin Brockovich had through her life – how put-upon she was – would understandably behave in this matter. But for my purposes, the further into the film I delved, and the more obnoxious the persona was, the less I enjoyed the performance.

And to further attack the screenplay, the ending was just too pat. I think I saw this movie before, when it was called “A Civil Action” (which I also didn’t like!). I guess it just has to hit you in the right frame of mind. Luckily, Roberts is helped by a capable supporting cast, including Finney, who’s a tower of strength in one of his most substantial roles to date. As for Brockovich’s wardrobe – she had classier threads as hooker in “Pretty Woman,” but at least there she had the excuse that she wanted men to pay her for having sex with them. No such excuse here!

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