In Erin Brockovich, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, Julia Roberts plays a sparsely educated, twice-divorced mother of three who favors spike heels and cleavage-enhancing tops and blunt talk. She also happens to be a real-life crusader who spearheads an investigation leading up to the largest pay-off ever made in a direct-action lawsuit. In other words, it’s the perfect all-in-one part for an actress, a real gimme-an-Oscar role. It’s not a particularly subtle or incisive acting job, but Roberts isn’t the actress you go to for a full-scale emotional tour de force anyway; she’s too spry and quicksilver and fun-loving. She’s always at her best playing someone for whom life is a spree, and the legal maneuverings and skullduggery in Erin Brockovich occasionally reflect that freewheeling spirit. If, say, Meryl Streep had played Erin instead – and, in a sense, she already did, in Silkwood – she would have brought out the whorls and shadows of contradiction in her personality. She would have made us gasp at what ordinary people are capable of. With Roberts, Erin is the ordinary made triumphant, and her victory is meant to be a win for all the beauty-queen, trailer-trashy types who ever had to suffer the indignities of the effete, educated elite in this country.
The early sequences featuring Erin juggling her kids while trying to land a job have a warmly observant, off-the-cuff quality, plangent and uncondescending. They hold out the promise that we’ll be treated to something rare in American movies, an embracing and clearheaded view of class. (It’s what Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard had.) Steven Soderbergh is a marvelously adept filmmaker with a dubious penchant for artiness – The Limey, most recently – but here he sticks to the story and brings out its grace notes, its little human bits of business. When Erin is banged up in a car accident in the San Fernando Valley and fails to win a settlement, she browbeats her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney) into giving her a job in his firm as payback. The relationship is set up as an odd-couple running gag: He’s kindly and exasperated; she’s always mouthing off. It’s hokey all right, but it’s also charming, because the performers seem to genuinely enjoy playing off each other. They’re very good at conveying the needling and frolics that can go on between co-workers. This sort of thing, of course, has already been done to a fare-thee-well in any number of sitcoms, but the tone here isn’t as clipped or propulsive as you often get in the TV shows. It’s gentler; initially even Erin’s rowdiness is made to seem moonstruck.
When Erin pokes around in a pro bono case that leads her to a small California desert town and its Pacific Gas & Electric plant, the film begins to lose its jaunty specialness and settle into something more rallying and conventional. With no legal training but lots of smarts and empathy, Erin discovers that the water surrounding the facility is toxic and responsible for hundreds of grievous maladies among the townspeople.
Because she is depicted as manifestly just-folks, Erin, unlike the big-shot lawyers, has a privileged way with these small-timers; when she interviews the sick and the worried, they pour out their fears to her, and the testimonies open the way for a massive lawsuit against PG&E that consumes Erin’s life and also reinvents it. She has less time for her children, who resent her for it, and she skimps on her relationship with the kindly local biker George (Aaron Eckhart), who loves taking care of the kids but feels jilted by their mother. George is the male version of all those movie wives and girlfriends who loiter on the edge of the action, simpering, while their men have the audacity to go out and conquer the world. Either way, this role’s a drag.
It’s a cheat for this film to turn so self-righteous as it moves along. As the high dudgeon gets higher and higher, the charm seeps out of Julia Roberts’s performance. Erin becomes a feminist heroine, a role model, a champion, and her nostrils flare accordingly. While all this Oscar-preening is going on, our attention shifts to Albert Finney, whose rumpliness here is a state of grace. He keeps the tone light whenever he’s around, and that’s a blessing: More than anybody else connected with this movie, he seems to understand that the cause of seriousness isn’t necessarily undercut by an actor’s being deft and a bit silly. Clarion-call movies about the righting of real-life wrongs are on the rise in Hollywood, as in, most recently, A Civil Action and The Hurricane, and they all share an oppressive do-goodism. The trick is to make us care without turning it all into waxworks. Erin Brockovich has some real shine but succumbs to waxy build-up.