Erin Brockovich (review)

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First Thing We Do…

Erin Brockovich is going to be a huge hit.

If last Saturday night’s sneak-preview audience is any guide, this could be Julia Roberts’s biggest movie yet. Everything she did onscreen, everything she said either elicited ardent routs of laughter or sent what could only be called worshipful undulations rippling through the crowd. The thrall in which Roberts held these people frightened me. I’m sure execs at Universal Pictures are already peeing in their collective pants with anticipation over this weekend’s box office. Biggest opening ever for a March weekend — you read it here first.

I’m one of about four people on the planet not charmed by Julia Roberts, yet I’m fascinated — in a horrible kind of way, as if by a car wreck — by her almost universal appeal. What the hell is it about her that brings moviegoers to their knees? Erin Brockovich made me realize that perhaps part of it is an undercurrent that runs through at least some of her most popular movies, including Pretty Woman, Stepmom, and now Brockovich: they feed into the general suspicion with which many Americans squint at professionals like lawyers, and these films look with the same disdain upon professionalism and even mere grown-up behavior that many people seem to share.

Erin Brockovich isn’t quite the childish, mean-spirited character some of Roberts’s (Notting Hill) previous roles have been. A twice-divorced mother of three, desperate for work, she scams her way into a filing job at the law office of Ed Masry (Albert Finney: Simpatico, Tom Jones), a hard-working single practitioner — in other words, just a guy trying to do a job, without partners, without a fancy high-rise office, and without rich clients. Erin is brash, loud, abrasive, and immediately rubs Ed’s small staff the wrong way. But she’s also smart, and before long, instead of merely filing away an old case, she’s digging into it, launching her own independent investigation into what becomes a gigantic lawsuit against the California utility company PG&E.

Okay, I could complain about the fact that Erin, who can’t pay her phone bill at one point, barely seems to wear the same outfit twice… indeed, barely seems to wear her outfits at all. (Poor thing: she doesn’t seem to be able to afford a single blouse that actually covers her bra.) I could complain about the fact that Erin gets the information she needs, is able to dig up incriminating evidence against a $30 billion corporation due not to her not inconsiderable smarts but because, well, she dresses like a whore, wiggles her ass a lot, and drops ridiculous compliments to moronic men who gape at her with their jaws on the floor. I could complain that the unfortunately depressing reality that women are still judged more by their sex appeal than by their brains and abilities goes utterly uncommented upon by Susannah Grant’s (Ever After) script or Steven Soderbergh’s (Out of Sight) direction.

But I won’t, and in fact I’ll even compliment Roberts on a fine job with a complicated, intelligent, realistic character. I’m totally comfortable admitting that I didn’t think she had it in her, and I don’t mind being proven wrong. It’s almost impossible to see beyond her star aura to the character she’s playing, but I guess that isn’t precisely her fault.

No: the thing that I hate about Erin Brockovich (you knew I’d find something to hate, didn’t you?) is its unironic attitude that all lawyers are cold-hearted, uncaring sharks. “Do you know why people think all lawyers are back-stabbing bloodsuckers?” Erin asks a lawyer at a big firm that Ed partners with when their PG&E case gets too overwhelming. The rhetorical question never gets answered, but I think I know why: because that’s how movies like Erin Brockovich portray them.

Erin Brockovich might well be called First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers. Of course, most people who quote that line (from Shakespeare’s Henry VI) either forget or never knew is that that line is spoken by a character advocating anarchy — Shakespeare’s point was that lawyers, in fact, help keep our society running in an orderly fashion. Yes, of course there are rotten apples, as there are in every profession, but to be so completely dismissive of the important work that lawyers do is inexcusable. (Disclaimer: some of my favorite friends are lawyers.)

Practically a Patch Adams for the legal profession, Brockovich sets up Erin — an uneducated outsider with unorthodox methods — as the cure for what supposedly ails the legal system. Even regular-Joe lawyers like Ed are — in the point of view of the film — useless, unable to muster the enthusiasm to help all the sick working-class people of the small town of Hinkley who’ve been poisoned by the carcinogen PG&E has been pouring into their groundwater. Erin, though, is able to talk to these people — they sympathize with her, we’re supposed to believe — getting them to open up and share their pain with her. But the dichotomy of Good Normal Folk and Bad Legal Professionals gets taken to such an extreme degree that it becomes unbelievable: if the ordinary working people of Hinkley are so charmed by Erin, why does she inspires such rancor in the ordinary working people in Ed’s office? This is based on a true story — Erin Brockovich is a real-life David who took on a behemoth of a Goliath and won. Why was it necessary to make the situation so black and white? Couldn’t we have been trusted to see shades of gray?

A single scene embodies everything that’s wrong about Erin Brockovich (and that’s not to say that the film is anything like a total loss). When the big firm moves in to help Ed and Erin with the PG&E case, a lawyer who has looked through Erin’s research asks for her help in filling in some missing information, such as the phone numbers and addresses of some of the hundreds of plaintiffs. Erin becomes incensed at the suggestion that her work is incomplete and begins rattling off plaintiffs’ names, their children’s names and ages, addresses, phone numbers, familial relations, illnesses. See, Erin cares about the people of Hinkley in a way the heartless professional never could, or so this is meant to demonstrate.

The sneak-preview crowd went wild at Julia’s– I mean, Erin’s figurative slap in the face to the Big Bad Lawyer. It’s a nice parlor trick, I suppose, having such a prodigious memory. But it’s hardly helpful in any kind of formal way. Our legal system does, much to the detriment of old-growth forests, run on paperwork, and lawyers don’t — can’t — walk into courtrooms with their entire cases crammed into their heads. Of course it’s wonderful that Erin is so concerned with these people and has spent so much time on their cases that she has all their vital information memorized. But if she’d been hit by a bus, it would all be gone, and the clients she cares so much about would have been none the better for all her effort.

Not that any of that matters. Biggest opening ever for a March weekend — mark my words.

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