It’s sad to see a talented filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh descend to the quasi-propaganda and pure schlock of Erin Brockovich. Julia Roberts plays the eponymous Erin, a nasty, unpleasant foul-mouthed harridan meant to be both attractive and admirable to us because, I guess, she is Julia Roberts and doing feisty. Be feisty, Julia. And Julia is feisty in the role of a twice-divorced single mother turned personal injury paralegal who hits the legal jackpot. And Julia doing feisty has created its own jackpot, giving the picture a $28.2 million opening-weekend gross—a fact which (not for the first time) I must confess leaves me baffled and depressed in the same way that Bill Clinton’s two election victories and Al Gore’s current strength in the polls leave me baffled and depressed. How is it possible for so many people to be fooled by these patent phonies?
The film begins with Erin losing her own personal injury lawsuit against a doctor whose car hit hers because she cannot contain her outburst in court against the “a****** who hit me.” Then, when she loses, she engages in a similarly unlovely outburst against her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Ed must be some kind of masochist, however, or else one of those baffling millions who apparently find Julia Roberts doing feisty irresistible. He subsequently offers her a job in his struggling law office, in spite her complete lack of training or experience and in spite of her more or less constant nastiness to him and his staff. “I’m smart, I’m hard-working, I’ll do anything and I’m not leaving here without a job,” she says to him. “Don’t make me beg.” It also doesn’t hurt that the camera focuses lovingly throughout on Julia’s unaccustomed, Wonderbra-enhanced cleavage.
And she is able to make use of same, as well as her feistiness, once she is hired—as Ed finds out when he asks her about how she is going to obtain some sensitive evidence.”What makes you think you can just walk in there and find what you need?”
“They’re called boobs, Ed,” she says, feistily.
She is also meant to endear herself to us and to Ed by such hilarious one-liners at the expense of the latter’s plump secretary as: “I’m not talking to you, bitch” or “Bite my ass, Krispy Kreeme.” When Ed briefly attempts to fire her but offers to help her find another job, she tries out her own unique combination of passive-aggression and aggressive aggression: “You’re just trying not to feel guilty about firing someone with three kids to feed. F*** if I’m going to help you.” Of course she is soon hired back, even though Ed doesn’t know as yet that she has been laying the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit for hundreds of millions of dollars against Pacific Gas and Electric that will be the making of both of their fortunes.
The actual courtroom drama of the movie is perfunctory to non-existent. P. G. and E. is as guilty as giant utility companies being sued by charmingly feisty lawyers in the movies always are. “This is like David and Whatsisname,” says awestruck Erin.
“This is like David and Whatsisname’s whole f****** family,” replies Ed.
For Goliath, it seems, has been poisoning the groundwater around one of its plants with hexavalent chromium and causing all kinds of health problems for 600-odd local residents and employees, all of whom come to look upon a curiously unfeisty Erin as a friend as well as an advocate. For with them she has quite the bedside manner—which turns out to be a good thing for her because it means she has become indispensable to Ed and the litigation partners he has taken on, whom she also insults and verbally abuses. The actual lawsuit—or rather the movie lawsuit—is so open-and-shut that Soderbergh wastes little time on it. He’s much more interested in providing Julia with more opportunities for being feisty outside the courtroom.
Feisty and sensitive. For the propagandistic side of the film comes not only with its pretty routine attack on the giant corporation and its championing of the plaintiff’s bar but also in its championing of working mothers. Erin’s three adorable moppets are looked after by her boyfriend, a sensitive New Age biker called George—who is played by Aaron Eckhart in what may be an attempt to live down his own past as a cinematic a******. Now he’s just a cinematic moron, given to saying things like “You’re a very special lady” and “It was really intense” to mark him out as the post-feminist equivalent of the legendary brainless doll of a housewife. Aaron the simpleton tries to persuade Erin that her long hours spent collecting evidence against P.G. and E. might be bad for her kids, but she in effect tells him not to worry his pretty little head about it.
“I’m doing more for my kids now than when I was living with my parents,” she tells him—and certainly more than when she was trying to “bend myself around some man.” Also she’s making lots of money, and lawyer-values—the values of those for whom well-being is directly translatable into dollars and cents—permeate the movie. At one point George attempts to leave her (don’t worry; he’s too stupid to survive on his own), and, immediately after he rides off on his motorcycle, she is presented with a car and a bonus of $5000. To her kids she says, “This is our lucky day.”
True, the kids don’t seem altogether as happy about it as they might be, nor about the long hours Erin puts in trying to nail P. G. and E. But their complaints too get short shrift: “I’m doing this for us,” she tells them. “Don’t you want momma to be good at her job?” Of course they do, the little darlings. At one point, Erin’s son picks up one of the files her mother has been studying and notices that it concerns the medical history of a little girl of about his own age. Erin explains that that is why he and his sisters have not been seeing much of her. She has been helping this poor little girl—helping, her, in fact, to become a millionaire. “Why can’t her own mom help her?” asks the child naïvely.
“Because her mom’s real sick too.”
And naturally the kid leaves the room with a big smile on his face, all his doubts cleared up. That smile is the phoniest thing in this supremely phony film. But at least it’s got Julia Roberts, with breasts, in revealing clothes being feisty. What more do you want?