Friday, June 16, 2006

Picked Flick #51: Erin Brockovich

In a stunning demonstration of the Newtonian physics of movie stardom, Julia Roberts both loses and acquires her cool in Erin Brockovich, a movie that struts right past and, when necessary, stomps right over the hoariest clichés of Liberal Crusader Cinema. Any paean to this film must pay obeisance to Roberts' presence and performance in the title role, but what's most striking to me about her iconic turn is that "presence" and "performance" describe nearly opposite vectors of her work. Much more typically, a showcase for a megastar like Roberts aligns who she is (or who we perceive her to be) with what she does as a performer—and so, to take some easy examples, Garry Marshall practically keys the lighting in Pretty Woman to her generous, toothy supersmile, and he interpolates that lusty, cackling, blooper take of Richard Gere snapping the jewelry case on her fingers, such that her spontaneous whoop is indistinguishably Vivian's and Julia's whoop. Sleeping with the Enemy and The Pelican Brief play up the fragile tremulousness of, respectively, the newly anointed star who had best not put a foot wrong and the "comeback" queen trying hard to stay in the game while the shadowy forces of Hollywood PR try to paint her as a waning commodity. Erin Brockovich, though, like My Best Friend's Wedding and Notting Hill except better, amplifies our loyalty to this star while palpably, almost perversely calling attention to her most dubious and off-putting qualities. After instantly winning us over in the first sequence, pleading for a job that we're sure she won't get and probably doesn't want, Julia allows her high-voltage charisma to take care of itself ever afterward, choosing instead to emphasize how crabby and chirpily ruthless Erin can be, how pinched she is by her borderline bankruptcy and by snoopy co-workers. Her line readings are mercilessly good, especially when she's flaring up with ire or its cousin, self-pity: "I was Miss Wichita for God's sake... did I tell you that?" Pacific Gas & Electric arrives into the movie as yet another thing that annoys Erin, abrading her ever-abraded sense of fairness—barely any different from the lawyer's office that doesn't return her calls or the long-haired, engine-revving neighbor who has the temerity to be attracted to her. Erin is a hero who is also a pill; the script, limned with zingers and an unbeatably triumphalist character arc, gets the vinegar treatment from a wonderfully emboldened Roberts, who finally gets to use that haughty edge which marred some other performances as a productive tool for tempering and complicating this one. Steven Soderbergh, savvy to an extreme, captures Erin's righteous pluck as well as her almost free-floatingly disdainful attitude, and he captures these and other idiosyncrasies in shots that remain character-driven and respectful of her roving intelligence, even when the script starts to crank out the plot logic. Working both with and against the screenplay, both with and against Roberts' lavishly adored persona, Erin Brockovich activates an almost molecular field of humming electricity around this newly revealed actress. When Walter Benjamin wrote about "aura," Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich is what he had in mind.

And yet, it's as misleading as it is nearly unavoidable to consider Erin Brockovich a star vehicle, because Soderbergh's eye and his guiding hand are just as attentive, as creative, and as revelatory with regard to everything and everyone else in the film. Even the title is misleading: Erin Brockovich sounds like the story of one imposing woman, who, incidentally, could hardly have chosen a better name for herself: soothingly vowelly at the outset, and then, without a moment's notice, armored and aggressive with hard, intimidating consonants. But where, in that deceptively monolithic title, could we possibly sense the perfection with which the movie nails the entire Hinkly community, the weirdly telegraphed malice of overstuffed manila files, the dead air of an office where co-workers stolidly tolerate each other, and where new arrivals hang their dreams of individuality on the prospect of choosing their own code for the Xerox machine? How can we know that Albert Finney's Ed Masry will emerge just as roundedly and memorably as Julia's Erin, or that just when Erin is getting pretty easy to take at face value, Cherry Jones will pop up to slam a door in her face with ample justification, or Aaron Eckhart will withstand another caustic, patently defensive, and narcissistic put-down from this ersatz champion of the little people? "What about you, George?" Erin huffs, as though it simply hasn't occurred to her that other people need her, and that more than that, they need the parts of themselves that she has colonized along her admittedly valiant warpath toward social justice. Erin Brockovich isn't just about a woman who bucked the system but about the way that even a fully warranted outrage, hers or ours, often spills over into careless, omnivorous contempt. Like My Best Friend's Wedding, it doesn't quite end as you'd expect, but it's enormously freeing to the actress, the film, and even the entire genre that new gradations of "resolution," new compromises in tone and perspective, are finally permitted.

Like many critics, I trumpeted Traffic a little more loudly than I did Erin Brockovich when they so famously debuted in 2000. It isn't so much that Traffic has aged poorly as that I haven't had a single impulse to watch it again; my memory is of having a stout admiration for Soderbergh's ambitions, his seriousness, and his organizing skills, but of trying to muscle that admiration into an actual enthusiasm, which deflated before I could even write a proper review. (Truly, this was back when I really wrote reviews.) Erin Brockovich, meanwhile, remains one of the decade's sturdiest and most perennially rewarding entertainments: edited like a dream, paced like a racehorse with nothing to prove, accented with smart shifts in makeup and costume that far exceed the tarty first impressions, and lit with real acuity. Those zingers still zing. In several scenes where Erin gets what she wants with a flashy grin and a folksy demeanor—at the Water Board, in the Jensens' home—the film delivers much funnier and richer riffs on how Julia fabricates and manipulates her Julia-ness than Ocean's Twelve ever quite manages. Erin Brockovich gets me cheering for Erin every time, but also empathizing with the people wriggling under her stiletto pumps or cowering from her fury behind their tackboard cubicles. It also gets me thinking about why I am reacting this way, and about the value and the costs of Erin's fierceness, and why we're all so pissed off these days (enough so for Erin Brockovich to become a national folk hero), and about the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of being so constantly pissed. The movie, itself a little pissed, betrays its own lapses in tone and judgment, but you forgive them because like everything else in the film, they are interesting, entertaining, precautionary, and true. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2000 Universal Pictures.

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