Monday, March 7, 2011

Erin Brockovich

 Whatever else director Steven Soderbergh's 2000 hit ERIN BROCKOVICH may be, it is first and foremost a Star Vehicle. The sort of film that tailors everything around its lead. It matters not if the source is a true story; in fact, all the better! Particularly in a story where a scrappy, foul-mouthed Everywoman takes on Corporate and wins one for the Little People. The screenplay in a Star Vehicle is designed to showcase the Star in the most favorable of possible lights, to make that individual shine brightly at the expense of perhaps story credibility and sometimes, even other characters' ability to behave like real folks! This is the central problem I have with this movie, which I think otherwise is pretty good.

It's an inspiring story: a financially struggling unwed mother of three is hired on as a file clerk mercifully by her lawyer (Albert Finney, winning as always) after she loses a personal injury case following an auto accident. The woman is brash and crude and dresses like, well, you know.., the very opposite of pretty much everyone else in the peaceful office. Erin will eventually run across some curious documents and discover that a large company, PG & E, covered up their contamination of the water supply of a small California town. Erin will tirelessly interview residents of the town, learning that many of them became quite ill over the last 35 years. Brockovich will also meet a Deep Throat of sorts, a man who has vital knowledge of PG & E chicanery and even claims to have destroyed some key documents. The case will end in a multimillion dollar settlement for the hundreds of plaintiffs in the town of Hinkley, CA. True story.

Great. It's the sort of vindication we love to see both in real life and in fiction. It is also the raw material for a potentially melodramatic Lifetime pic. Instead, Soderbergh frames (he often holds the camera himself) a slightly askew examination of a desparate, fiery woman hellbent on seeing this case to its conclusion. I would expect nothing less of such an innovative director, and his style cannot be faulted. He finds the correct balance between overly stylized experiment and straight-faced narrative, a fine line he doesn't always succeed in executing. I wish all such stories were as visually interesting as ERIN BROCKOVICH.

How so? The director shoots all the usual scenes, but in ways you may not expect. For example, the inevitable love scene between our heroine and George (Aaron Eckhart), a friendly biker she meets, is shot more tightly than we would expect-Soderbergh is not trying to titillate by going for the best angle of these attractive actors' forms. We stay mainly on their faces, and the camera flails around restlessly. The director always seems to find unique ways to shoot these kinds of scenes (witness the "through the cube glass" distorted sex scene in the otherwise wretched FULL FRONTAL).

But yes, all of the typical docudrama scenes are here: the heartfelt testimonials from the townspeople, the intense showdowns between the protagonist and her boss, the domestic difficulties. Again, Soderbergh and screenwriter Susannah Grant do things a bit differently, such as when Erin dresses down George after he dares ask her out. She gives him a fierce lecture and turns away; George is so exhaustedly smitten he simply falls to the ground. Finney portrays Edward Masry as a thouroughly jaded, yet compassionate crust with seemingly little effort, adding more than a bit of weight to every scene he's in, even as he holds court with that 800 lb. gorilla in the room.

Yes, that would be Roberts. And we're back to where we started. For all of my admiration of ERIN BROCKOVICH, my enthusiasm was deflated by how this picture caters to her Performance. Perfect example: Conchatta Ferrell plays Masry's receptionist, a gruff, takes-no-BS type who is constantly barraged by Brockovich's profane tirades: and the film never allows her to retort! Were the filmmakers paying attention to Ferrell's character? I didn't believe for a second that such a veteran of human communication would allow this scantily clad hussy to just walk all over her.

Another perfect example: when the door-to-door interviews commence, a slicker, more conservative representive tries to talk to the townspeople, and of course fails miserably because she's not as flashy and entertaining as the buxom Brockovich. This screenplay never gives the other woman a chance, reducing her to a cliched uptight prude. She's given no depth, because that would undermine our Star. And we're supposed to cheer! That's how simple-minded the film gets. Many in the audience were cheering; I was not among them.

I'm sure that Ms. Brockovich (the real one) is a larger-than-life character. She's fascinating. Roberts does fine work interpreting her, no question. But the movie is playing a zero-sum game, pretty much. I wish the other characters were given as much dimension.

Part V: The Great Overrated
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