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Film Review: Erin Brockovich

By Melynda Nuss

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich and Albert Finney as Ed Masry

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich and Albert Finney as Ed Masry

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich and Aaron Eckhart as George
Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich and Aaron Eckhart as George

Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures

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SAN FRANCISCO, 28 February 2001 - It used to be that you couldn't have an Oscar race without at least one sentimental issue picture - Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, Schindler's List, even Forrest Gump. Not only did these movies provide the sentimental heroes and heartwarming stories that Oscar viewers love, they also purported to help viewers understand an important social or historical event - or, in the case of Forrest Gump, the entire late 20th century. Viewers hadn't just seen a film, they'd Learned Something. Indeed, they'd also usually learned to be on the right side of something. If you liked Dances with Wolves, you knew all about the conquest of the American West. If you hated Ralph Fiennes, then you were all right on the Holocaust.

In a year where high culture films have stolen so many slots away from the highly promoted Oscar favorites, it's good to know that there is at least one sentimental issue picture in the lot. And Erin Brockovich is not just a sentimental issue pic - it's the Big Daddy of them All. It has Spunky Working Class Girl Makes Good. It has a Struggling Single Mom just Trying to Make Things Right for the Kids. It has the Noble Biker who No One Understands. It has a Close Knit Small Town, Evil Corporations who Spill Toxic Waste and Just Don't Care, and Kids with Cancer. It has an Old Man Finding a New Lease on Life. And best of all, it has a Good Girl Heroine to give the Evil Corporations their Rightful Come Uppance, and she just happens to look like Julia Roberts. If Soderbergh had only found a way to work in the handicapped, a war hero, race relations and a dog, he could have covered all the bases.

Of course, in some ways it's no fun to criticize Erin Brockovich. It's a classic Julia Roberts fairy tale, only this time the princess drives away in a sport utility vehicle she's earned herself with a boyfriend who's willing to support her ambitions and take care of the kids. But like a smart legal assistant in a push-up bra, this movie begs to be taken seriously, and once you do, the conflicts get almost too tangled to be sorted out. The movie wants to be about the struggles of working women, but every working woman except Julia Roberts seems to be caught in a dead end job. There's even one cruel working woman stereotype -- a sexually unfulfilled female lawyer, with her hair stuck in a tight bun and her pantyhose working their way up her rear, unable to relate to the corporate world of the male lawyers but shut out of the female bonding that goes on between worried mothers. The movie wants to dramatize the conflict between work and motherhood, but yet Erin lands the perfect babysitter before the movie is halfway through, and miracle of miracles, the kids not only understand what she's doing, they support her. Erin doesn't have any truck with sex or sexual stereotypes; yet her boobs get enough screen time to deserve their own line in the credits, and she seems to take a perverse pleasure in displaying them, even though she denies that they have any meaning. The movie wants to glorify the working class and show up corporate insensitivity, but its heroine ends the movie in a corner office clutching a bonus check and a cell phone.

Part of the problem may be that Soderbergh, to his credit, has ignored the first rule of every good issue pic: make sure you choose an issue that everyone agrees on. Stephen Spielberg could bet that his audience was pretty solidly against the Holocaust; Soderbergh can't be too sure how his audience feels about working mothers. And it's also to this movie's credit that it sketches out the problems that face working mothers in great detail: lack of education and experience, leering coworkers, overmedicated babysitters, and the precarious balance between work and family. Perhaps the problem is that it resolves these problems too easily. Brockovich gets out of the pink collar ghetto by a combination of toughness and spunk, a gentle babysitter/boyfriend appears at the front door, and the kids understand that even though it hurts that Mom's away, what she's doing is really a Good Thing. (Ladies, don't try this at home.)

Perhaps, too, the problem is that Brockovich is so ungenerous to anyone who isn't Julia Roberts. Her co-workers at the law firm are jealous and frumpy, the corporate lawyers are devious and scheming, the townspeople gullible and grateful. Strangely, this seems to trivialize rather than elevate the struggles of the working class. Having trouble finding a job? Harangue a lawyer. Sex discrimination? Use a snappy comeback. Water bad? Sue PG&E. Kids unhappy? They'll live. Ah, if only all of life could be like a Julia Roberts movie - or if only a Julia Roberts movie could be a little bit more like life.

Three stars.

Melynda Nuss is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She is currently writing a book about stagecraft and the Romantic drama.

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