Megastar Julia Roberts raises her commanding screen charm to a new level with her powerful portrayal of Erin Brockovich, a real-life, twice-divorced mother of three who managed to lead a small law firm to victory over a major gas and electric company (PG&E). With little work experience and no legal experience, Brockovich undoes the company's cover-up, which caused the illness and death of hundreds of people in a tiny town out in the desert. Robert's performance complements Soderbergh's thoughtful, character-focused direction to tell the story of this disturbing case with moving intensity.
At the start of the film, Erin is definitely down on her luck. Unemployed, with $17 in her checking account, when a car accident puts her in a neck brace, Erin hires a well-intentioned but uninspired lawyer named Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney) to sue for damages. Masry loses. Enraged and desperate, Erin demands Masry give her a job. ("Don't make me beg. I'm desperate," she whispers to him, after loudly demanding employment in front of Masry's whole staff.)
This is the first of many things Erin gets Masry to do. After he lets her read up on a dull-looking, pro-bono real-estate case, she convinces him to pursue links between clients' health problems and PG&E. The case eventually turns into a lawsuit involving almost 600 clients that results in a $333 million dollar resolution--the largest such settlement in U.S. history.
This sounds like your standard courtroom drama, but Soderbergh makes it a character study. The movie--the promotional material says it sticks closely to the facts of the real case--makes Erin's strong-minded yet likable personality the key to her against-the-odds achievement. And Roberts captures that character with her go-get-'em, defiant monologues, her skin-tight, zebra-striped wardrobe, her pronounced cleavage, and high heels. She even pulls off convincingly the tenderness underneath her bravado.
Watching Erin gain the trust of Ed Masry is particularly fun to watch. There is a genuine chemistry between the Roberts and Finney that comes through on the screen as they move from outright animosity to grudging mutual respect to deep friendship.
Alas, Roberts is such a big star these days it's hard to completely forget the actress and see only her character. Julia looks good in the tight outfits and high heels, and Soderbergh doesn't miss a chance to let his active camera run over her legs, chest and hips, expertly and often. He gets away with it because part of Erin's force is her voluptuousness, but the effect is still distracting.
This is only a minor problem in a film that has the true power to inspire. In one of its most affecting scenes, Soderbergh pans the white, hulking walls of the PG&E plant at twilight. The camera sweeps across barren land to a small house. Then it jerkily takes in one man stumbling out of the house, weeping wordlessly. He grabs up pebbles and blindly hurls them at the plant. In the next scene we learn that his wife has been diagnosed with cancer, due to the chromium in the water that PG&E polluted.
The man's pebbles don't have the power of David's stone, but Erin Brockovich managed to gather enough stones to strike a major blow against PG&E. The movie captures the satisfaction of victory--for Erin, for the townspeople, and for anyone who fights against the odds.