More traditional and individualistic – almost fiercely so – in comparison to Steven Soderbergh’s more heterogeneous panoplies of varying voices, textures, and tones, Erin Brockovich doesn’t always do more than glisten, but boy does it. It’s pure pop, and it’s easy to criticize Soderbergh for heading in that direction after the more experimental (and better) The Limey. But no modern filmmaker oscillates between his experimental personal projects and his only-slightly-less-personal commercial properties with Soderbergh’s frequency or his gusto, let alone his singular ability to thin the membrane between private experiment and populist fare so thin that there often isn’t a difference between the two. (Consider the exhaustive meta-textual star-commentary and celebrity hang-out anti-caper film Ocean’s Twelve). Who can blame him for making Erin Brockovich when a fanatically experimental and alienating film like Full Frontal is right around the corner? Or, for that matter, who can blame him when his feather-light pop nothings like Erin Brockovich are this wonderful?
But, having alluded to Soderbergh’s now-infamous Julia-Roberts-playing-her-character-playing-Julia-Roberts shenanigans in Ocean’s Twelve, I have to concede that when an audience member thinks of Steven Soderbergh and Julia Roberts, they’re thinking of Erin Brockovich. It didn’t beat Soderbergh’s other Best Director nominee from the same year, Traffic, to Oscar gold for Soderbergh, and it shouldn’t have – Traffic is a more vigorously directed motion picture – but Brockovich was and is a fine co-conspirator. Taken in tandem, both as alternate variants of the old Issue Picture chestnut, they represent a nuanced interplay with two classical variants of that much-maligned genre. Neither, however, is truly an inversion of its dominant wheelhouse or a paradoxical or perpendicular reading of its genre. As with Traffic, Erin Brockovich doesn’t truly contest its genre or even violate it by messing it up or screwing with its head. Rather, it spruces things up, tightens the bolts, gives it a new coat of paint. (Although, I must admit, the paint isn’t as fundamentally kaleidoscopic as in Traffic).
Compared to, say, the quiet mania of The Limey or the unadorned cool-warm flashes of Out of Sight, Brockovich is a bit more boldface, strains a little too much for self-consciously iconic importance, and is more likely to ordain its one central story as epochal and truly capital-I Important, which isn’t always for the best. Every image in Brockovich develops its main narrative’s importance, basically, rather than problematizing or complicating it. Brockovich is a much simpler story, with one through-line, one general ideal it strives for, and, in lieu of actually questioning itself with differing perspectives, it is merely content to muddy up its general dramatic narrative ever so slightly. But it’s cathartically entertaining, dynamically spirited filmmaking, edited with a muckraking pulse that flies by and envelops you. The story itself is, well, it’s the story, right? Erin Brockovich is a working-class mother of three who cajoles her way into a legal clerk position and then proves instrumental in a lawsuit against California’s Pacific Gas and Electric company for, and this is how you know it’s a grand old American ingenuity tale, contaminated drinking water of all things. It’s a true story though, but that is far more irrelevant to the quality of this or any feature film than any marketing campaign will tell you. What is relevant is the cinematic smarts Soderbergh wraps around it, and, of course, the humanity Roberts, in her all-time performance, gives to it. The film, and her performance, adopts an unapologetically populist idiom, but loads it up with thorny personal pricks.
Roberts especially is divine, excising any of the chipper, patronizing “working-class spirit” nonsense we might expect and playing a kind of un-stereotypical stereotype, a foul-mouthed and brash working-class woman that is neither abrasively criticized as stepping out of her place nor condescendingly valorized as rebuking the timidity and subordination often associated with women in goal-oriented films like this. She’s a mean, arrogant, often unsympathetic woman, an assertive type who doesn’t take no for an answer – the kind that would be labeled a “bitch” by most men – but the film neither demands that we see her as nice nor rebukes her negative characteristics. Instead, it reminds us that we as a society sometimes value negative characteristics in achievement-focused males, and that they are aspects of Brockovich’s humanity rather than her femininity or her impropriety.
The Oscar-winning performance is the film’s signature achievement, undoubtedly, but it’s a sturdy kind of creature, bolstered not only by Albert Finney’s flustered but committed work as Brockovich’s notional boss, Aaron Eckhart’s supporting performance as Brockovich’s boyfriend (a rare empathetic and un-patronizing depiction of a stay-at-home dad, in this case not even the birth father of the kids), and by Susannah Grant’s energetic but unhurried screenplay. Soderbergh’s team of collaborators are also in tip-top form. Edward Lachmann’s sandy, yellow-tinted cinematography is obviously a dry run for Soderbergh’s greater achievement in colorized tones lensing Traffic (via his alias Peter Andrews). But it is nonetheless an evocative and abnormally harsh portrait of a dust-ridden, economically depressed California, a desert of wandering people who are modern remnants of a by-then-neutralized 150 years of Westward expansion in search of opportunity. (Brockovich, of course, is a spiritual successor to these downtrodden American westward outlaws in search of a life). Anne V. Coates’ editing isn’t a patch on Sarah Flack’s from Soderbergh’s The Limey, but that’s the nature of the beast in this film where the editing serves the story rather than the mood or an experiential sense of time. And Coates’ editing is incisive anyway, adroitly moving from sharply-modulated intensity to more pensive, breath-ful images willing to linger on space and take-in facial expressions to humanize the mechanics of a story.
Even within the confines of its narrative, Brockovich still effuses a looseness of being, a lightness of spirit befitting Soderbergh’s essentially compassionate reading of working-class energy. The screenplay also benefits from a reticence that contrasts Brockovich’s talkative attitude. An early scene, for example, catches a whiff of fallen-woman roughness, intimating how a jury’s opinion of the title character hangs on the revelation that she has had two past husbands. Numerous character details hum at a just-barely-below–the-surface level, producing a pop pleasure with undercurrents of resistance and ambivalence that blossom into a full-on muckraking rant of empowerment and anti-corporate defiance. It has a fighter’s spirit, which is always appreciated, but it also has a soul. Not my idea of perfect cinema, but, as a melting pot hybridization of ‘90s independent filmmaking and mainstream Hollywood moviemaking, it’s hard to beat.