One of the first things they teach students in film school is to have a sympathetic main character, and unfortunately 95% of these filmmaker wannabes think this means they have to be a noble and totally PC lead.
That’s probably why “Erin Brockovich” is such a refreshing American movie, thanks to the fact that Director Steve Soderbergh realises that a character can be abusive and bitchy, and yet audiences will root for them – a technique foreign filmmakers have been using to great effect for decades and one which the US has begun waking up to again recently (eg. “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “Payback”).
Make no mistake this is a one-woman show with the entire movie resting on Julia Roberts who gives us her most interesting performance in years. Erin is a fully three-dimensional character with qualities both admirable and appalling. She’s a struggling single mother who cares deeply for her kids and taking on a fight against big business so your behind her right away.
On the other hand she’s pushy, abusive, bitchy, constantly swears and certainly uses her sex appeal to get what she wants. That may not make her role model material, but it certainly makes her a more engaging and true to life personality than some moral do-gooder with all the ethics of Mrs. Brady.
In fact one of the reasons the movie works so well is Soderbergh’s push for gritty urban realism. The scenery is bleak, the rooms dimly lit and dirty, the air all sweaty and humid. There’s no capped teeth or model-quality looking people around, these actors and settings are so realistic and unflashy it’s at times disconcerting to remember this is a studio-produced picture. Combine that with the lack of any pontificating courtroom scenes, and you’ve got a drama which a lot of people can relate to because it feels very everyday.
Helping that along is the casting of the brilliant Albert Finney in the lead male role. Finney’s work is always interesting, and here we have a gruff and experienced character shocked by the whirlwind that is Erin but is the only one who will put her in her place when needs be. I can imagine some exec wanting a good-looking older actor in the part (eg. Clooney, Ford, etc.), but that would seem not only a little false but also introduce other difficulties.
The casting of Finney allows him and Roberts to have a great on-screen male/female chemistry with the issue of sex never clogging up the running time. The little bits of humour between the two every fifteen minutes or so are great to watch and help lighten the mood at times when things get a little slow or repetitive.
Sadly the weak area would have to be Erin’s relationship with a biker and while Eckhart gives a good performance, the sub-plot feels thin and overly long. The 135 minute running time could’ve used some edits, and most of them should come from here. The plot about the case itself is also kind of bare, but as this is a character drama the plot is usually thin anyway.
While not as wide-appealing and cool as “Out of Sight”, “Erin” is just as big a triumph for Soderbergh and Roberts who really deserves an Oscar nomination for her superb performance. Certainly a must-see for her fans and adult audiences who can handle leisurely-paced movies.