That Erin Brockovich stars Julia Roberts and was directed by Steven Soderbergh isn’t only a statement of fact but the passageway to a question that different filmgoers will have different rooting interests in: Is this a Julia Roberts movie that Soderbergh happened to direct, or a Soderbergh movie that Roberts happens to appear in? In some quarters, there’s a natural assumption that the two things–star vehicle, auteur flourish–tend to be mutually exclusive in practice if not in theory. The happy news this week, though, is that EB is indeed both at once. One size fits all. Take your pick.
Personally, I hadn’t realized how little interest I had in experiencing another Julia Roberts vehicle until I sat though this one, which is why I should stress that the movie is no subversion, deconstruction or reinvention of what its ads will present it as. It is, pure and simple, a Julia Roberts vehicle. In practice, that means two things first off: Its calculated mix of comedy and melodrama must honor and further, not question, the ditzy/sexy/self-determined screen persona that Julia has established; and, Julia will dominate every scene and situation in which she appears, which includes virtually every frame in the film. The synopsis may say that it’s about a true case of environmental degradation and corporate skullduggery, but her fans know what it’s really about: Julia, Julia, Julia.
She’s the only female in Hollywood’s $20 million club, so perhaps we should applaud that and congratulate her on being able to hold her own in the company of Tom, Leo, Mel, Will, et al. But there are ways of constructing careers out of star-centric pictures, and some are better than others. Eastwood and Cruise, for example, have managed to stay interesting by hopscotching genres and skirting expectations on a regular basis. Then there’s Harrison Ford, who ambles from one crappy formula movie to the next so unhesitatingly that you’re tempted to assume he’s never given a moment’s thought to his artistic legacy. Considering Erin Brockovich simply as a formula construct, Roberts might be suspected of the same kind of cluelessness. But that would be to overlook the shrewdness in the choice–hers in part, surely–of Soderbergh to direct it.
At this point, Soderbergh may well be the most interesting, broadly talented director working within the confines of Hollywood and genre. Out of Sight, which the National Society of Film Critics voted the best movie of 1998, announced that status; Erin Brockovich confirms it. Though he started out as the auteur of Sex, Lies and Videotape, and still dips into the low-budget arena with projects like last year’s The Limey, Soderbergh has emerged as a power hitter who seems capable of taking on and elevating any project handed him. At the major-studio level, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment. It means that he’s able to take the limitations that stifle most Hollywood movies–the requirements of a star vehicle–and turn them into artistic advantages.
The hallmarks of his style are a meticulous craftsmanship, moment-to-moment clarity and a way of letting his characters and material breathe within the given genre structures. When Erin Brockovich opens, Erin (Roberts) is seen responding to questions from an off-screen job interviewer; while providing a sly nod to the opening of Sex, Lies … , as well as doing the basic expository work of letting us know our heroine’s a divorced mom of three small kids who’s having trouble finding a job, the scene, as Soderbergh handles it, is all about character and the particular textures of this moment, not plot. Of course it’s about Julia and her persona too, but these don’t overwhelm what’s around them; in fact, they blend with them in a way that signals Soderbergh’s skill in the balancing of agendas from then on.
The star’s persona must be packaged with the streamlined excitements of a plot, and eventually that happens here; a reel or two in, EB emerges as a legal thriller with comic overtones. But before that, there’s a period, when you’re not sure where the story’s going, that Soderbergh’s gifts for establishing the realities of people and situations is most striking. Erin leaves that unsuccessful job interview only to drive straight into an auto accident at the nearest intersection (Soderbergh shows this as a single long shot that’s a lot more jarring than any flurry of close-ups could be). Outfitted thereafter in an almost comical neck brace, she testifies in court, looking for a hefty injury settlement, pouring on the sentimental syrup about the kids and her just wanting to be a good mom. But her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), isn’t the best in the field, to say the least, and her opponent in court is a big-time doctor. So Erin loses and, in terms of financial straits, it’s back to square one.
What’s going on here is a dramatic prologue of sorts, but it’s one in which points are made that both undergird and transcend the ensuing drama. What struck me most was the sense that I’d never seen a movie that established the stresses of single motherhood so palpably yet offhandedly. And this isn’t a matter of dramatic rhetoric but of keen observation and sharp description. Soderbergh and his collaborators, including Roberts, do a subtly terrific job unveiling Erin’s home life through countless small details: the practiced way she carries the infant on one hip while using her free hand to deal with the other two kids, the way she herds them out of the car and across a parking lot and never stops talking, the hectic organization of her house and multifarious strategies she employs for finding and dealing with child care providers.
In a ponderous, preeningly mannered European art film like Rosetta, the treatment of such a character would be nothing but rhetoric and indirect condescension. “Woe is me,” it would implicitly moan, while watching its protagonist sink miserably beneath capitalism’s brutal boot. Limning people rather than illustrating ideas, Erin Brockovich is more honest for being more engaged with life’s actual complexities. Yes, Erin’s lot is hard and fighting for work while trying to raise three kids is an oppressive drag. But there’s the sense that her reality is also bound up with her view of things, which is that, dammit, she will prevail.
Although it eventually becomes a bit monotonous in the way it puts this across, the film is ultimately about Erin getting her way on her own terms, in every situation and against any conceivable challenge. When a hirsute, tattooed Hell’s Angels type (Aaron Eckhardt, in a very nice performance) moves in next door and rattles her windows with his Harley, she not only cusses him out but comes away with a volunteer child care provider and–soon enough–a sleep-in boyfriend to boot. (The film makes less of this relationship than it might; but then, it’s not about relationships.) And when it comes to work, Erin’s even more stubbornly invincible.
She barges into Ed Masry’s office after he’s lost her injury suit and, in effect, demands a job. Faced with a direct hit by Hurricane Erin, he unsurprisingly grants her wish. She’s not on the job too long before she notices something curious: There are medical records mixed in with real-estate files from people who live in a small California desert town called Hinkley. Taking it upon to herself to investigate, Erin discovers that Pacific Gas and Electric is buying up the townspeople’s property in a way that seems designed to steer them away from asking questions about the possible connections between company-contaminated groundwater and local health problems. So Erin becomes the people’s champion and, after convincing Ed to join the crusade, heads for a legal battle with a $30 billion corporation.
Susannah Grant’s script is based on an actual case that resulted in a record-setting judgment, but no one is likely to emerge from the movie more interested in the facts than in the star-powered fiction derived from them. However much it may resemble Silkwood or A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich exactingly is molded to the screen presence and propensities of Julia Roberts. Sure, the press notes may relate that the real Erin wore loud clothes that matched her brash, assertive personality, but for Roberts this is too ideal not to be turned into an outlandish, overdone shtick that keeps her cleavage and gams on constant, winking display throughout the movie.
Ed even asks Erin to upgrade her wardrobe and she brushes off the request peremptorily. Why? It’s notable, I think, that this dispute over wardrobe contains nary a hint of class difference. While European films obsess over class, one of the charming qualities of Hollywood movies has always been to convert the issue into one of personal idiosyncrasy. (Being poor and tartily dressed doesn’t mean Erin’s trailer trash; it means she’s down on her luck but free-spirited still.) The larger point, though, is that the sartorial argument allows Julia/Erin to claim the high ground, not just physically but emotionally as well: Here and everywhere else, she tells Ed what’s what and expects no lip or exercise of authority in return (Finney’s great at registering the boss’ crumpled abashment).
No less than Mildred Pierce or any other women’s picture of the 1940s, Erin Brockovich is a fable of what the ’40s would not have called female empowerment. Because Roberts has the requisite iconic heft and is very skillful to boot, it’s pretty much a sure thing commercially. But because Soderbergh directs it with his enormous intelligence and subtlety, it’s a lot more than that, too. The more the film rolls on, the more its script tends toward cartoonish overstatement and predictability. Yet there’s not a single scene that lacks some deft touch or the feeling for character and place that Soderbergh establishes early on. In fact, the tale’s increasingly formulaic nature makes you focus on its welcome nuances and attention to detail. One example, memorable precisely because it’s so tiny: In an establishing shot of a government office in the desert, you can hear the flagpole’s chain slapping against it in the wind.
I don’t know any other Hollywood filmmaker so capable of bringing moments of brilliance and unexpected perception to even the most routine of assignments. In auteurist terms, Soderbergh has been a bit of an anomaly in that his work doesn’t display much in the way of recurring subjects, tones or obsessive themes (I know shared elements can be found, but I’m talking about obvious connections). Yet that doesn’t mean that he’s simply a super-talented journeyman. It strikes me that his real passion and object of obsession may be film itself, its craft and the opportunity for idiosyncrasy within genres it still holds–if so, that’s a suitably postmodern attitude for a filmmaker who has so far shown a sure knack for self-definition.