Erin Brockovich (2000)
Written by Susannah Grant
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh had quite a year in 2000. In March, he released this film, and in December, Traffic came out. In both these films and others, Soderbergh focuses on themes centered around working-class/poor people being victims of a cruel, uncaring system. Even Ocean’s 11 is about an ex-con with nothing trying to screw over selfish, evil, wealthy people. Magic Mike is all about people struggling to make ends meet and raise themselves out of the poverty they seem stuck in while being exploited. Soderbergh doesn’t make traditional advocacy films and is more interested in telling character-focused stories that touch on economic struggles & hardships.
In the early 1990s, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) struggled to find a job and provide for her three kids. Two ex-husbands have vanished in the win, and life seems to be one disaster after another. A car accident leads her to court as the plaintiff against a wealthy man. Everything seems to be going fine until her outbursts in court cost her the case. Her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), tries to move on, but Erin was depending on that payday and demands a job at his firm. Ed sets her up as a filer, but Erin discovers one real estate case between landowners & Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) hints at something nefarious. The utility company has paid for one family’s doctor bills while selling the line that the groundwater in the wells is excellent. Erin realizes the company is responsible for poisoning an entire community and sets out to do something to help them.
One of the main critiques I’ve seen about this film from reviews of the time is the provocative and overtly sexual nature of Erin Brockovich. Critics like Roger Ebert complain that her dress is so sensational that it distracts from the story. I suspect this tells us more about what Mr. Ebert was thinking than the actual film. Soderbergh, in fact, addresses this same element in the story. Erin is frequently overlooked and ignored because, to other people, her form of dress is a signifier of economic class. They see her as dressing like a prostitute, and therefore she is beneath them, and her ideas can be discounted easily. “Real” legal experts dress in expensive suits and hold degrees. Soderbergh doesn’t shit on experts though, he spotlights the importance of scientific research and study, but he definitely has problems with gatekeeping and the stratification of social class in America.
Erin can connect with the residents of Hinkley, California because she understands the day-to-day struggle. Early on, we see her own infant sick and how she has to handle that while already having a full plate. Erin herself becomes ill with a respiratory virus and keeps working because people in her economic situation know you are rarely afforded sick days. We see how a representative from the big scale law firm brought on when the case grows fails to connect with the people, telling them to refrain from becoming emotional while describing their daughter’s cancer timeline and details.
I think a valid argument is that several elements stay underdeveloped even for its two-hour run time. I think the families Erin is helping always remain plot elements rather than fully fleshed-out characters. They are the vehicle through which Erin discovers herself as an advocate and environmental activist. Like Finney as Ed and Aaron Eckhart as Erin’s boyfriend, supporting characters are performed well, but they also seem one-dimensional after a while. Roberts is perfect as Erin, but it could be argued she isn’t so much playing a character as being her own Hollywood persona.
I would argue that I enjoyed Erin Brockovich more than Traffic. Traffic’s technical skill and aesthetic choices are more robust, while Erin Brockovich does a better job of giving us a straightforward plotline with a robust main character. It is easy to see how Soderbergh’s value increased in 2000 and would lead to his prolific career throughout the next two decades. Despite his constant refrains that he will be retiring from filmmaking, I can’t imagine someone as creative and full of energy for the craft will stop anytime soon.