Sun, 21 May 2000

'Erin Brockovich' -- essentially the triumph of the underdog

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): She may not seem like a role model: a twice- divorced woman with three young children, no permanent job and no college degree, a nastier attitude than your neighbor's pet rottweiler and an outrageous taste for clothing that is an eyesore.

But Erin Brockovich is a hero in her own right. It is her persistence and tenacity that motivated the citizens of a small California town to file a lawsuit against a giant corporation that was contaminating their water with toxic chemical waste. They were triumphant when the court ordered Pacific Gas & Electric to pay US$333 million to the plaintiffs, a record in the history of direct-action lawsuits in the United States.

The movie Erin Brockovich does not intend to be a historical account of this 1993 legal battle, and so it is perfectly all right that this review reveals the story's final outcome. This movie is essentially about the triumph of the underdog, and how it can happen around us, in real life.

The film begins with Erin (Julia Roberts) desperately looking for employment while swimming in debts and struggling to look after her three young offspring. In the midst of it all, she becomes a victim in a car accident, and her effort to sue the motorist falls through when she cannot restrain herself from spewing profanity at him during the trial.

Her desperation leads her back to her own attorney, aging lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney). In the film's most achingly funny scene, she both harangues and pleads with him into giving her a job at his office.

It is at Masry & Vittitoe that Erin reinvents herself. In the office's filing jungle, she discovers some land deal documents curiously attached with some medical records. Her inquisitive mind brings her to the town of Hinkley. She interviews some of the townsfolk and learns of Pacific Gas & Oil's scheme to buy property from the town's citizens, and of the company's effort to enlighten them about the "safe" chromium which the company's has been using in its neighboring plant.

Erin's investigation discloses that the chromium that PG&E employs to prevent rust in their machinery is not safe at all. It has been going into the town's water supply for years and may have been responsible for the various kinds of illnesses affecting locals.

The discovery leads to a fierce legal battle that positions Erin as Masry's most trusted assistant and elevates Masry & Vittitoe from an insignificant law firm to a venerable legal machine.

In the spirit of Norma Rae, that 1979 movie about the fictional labor union heroine, Erin Brockovich captures what essentially is key to this woman's achievement: her understanding of common folk. She unearths the truth from her patient handling of the Hinkley citizens, and later, she uses her rapport with them to motivate them to file the lawsuit.

Screenwriter Susannah Grant, who gave us a postmodernist Cinderella in Ever After, presents a more down-to-earth heroine in Erin, showing her foibles and that she would not be able to do all the great things if George (Aaron Eckhart), the benevolent ponytailed biker next-door, was not around to look after her children. Grant also gives us many reasons to cheer for this woman in her flashy attire, especially every time she manages to stand up against all those arrogant lawyers in their sinister suits.

We would not be seeing Erin in all her dynamic glory if it were not for Roberts' supercharged performance (the real Erin Brockovich cameos as a diner waitress wearing the name plate Julia). Roberts' face may still look too much like a movie star, but her body and spirit effortlessly blend into Erin's rebellious nature and her messy hairdo.

As Masry, veteran thespian Finney reminds us of Ed Asner's Lou Grant, a paternal, middle-aged tenderheart who can go ballistic to comical effect when most needed. Marg Helgenberger pulls at our heartstrings in her brief scenes as one of the Hinkley casualties.

The biggest surprise of all is director Steven Soderbergh, famous for his quirky debut sex, lies and videotape in 1989 and a string of independent circle follow-ups. Erin Brockovich is his first totally mainstream piece, and it's remarkable how he frees himself from his usual devices -- nonlinear storyline and irregular camera work -- and still manages to bring out a film as great as any of his previous vehicles. The way he presents human beings and humanity in his films is his strength and no matter what style he uses, he remains a true cinematic master.