Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Erin Brockovich: Special Edition (2000)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.

A real woman. A real story. A real triumph. Julia Roberts stars as Erin Brockovich, a feisty young mother who fought for justice any way she knew how. Desperate for a job to support herself and her three children, she convinces attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney) to hire her, and promptly stumbles upon a monumental law case against a giant corporation. Now, Erin's determined to take on this powerful adversary even though no law firm has dared to do it before. And while Ed doesn't want anything to do with the case, Erin won't take "no" for an answer. So the two begin an incredible and sometimes hilarious fight that will bring a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Coyote, Conchata Ferrell, Marg Helgenberger
Box Office: Budget: $51 million. Opening Weekend: $28.138 million. Gross: $125.548 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 44 chapters; rated R; 132 min.; $26.98; street date 8/15/00.
Supplements: Spotlight On Location: The Making Of Erin Brockovich; Erin Brockovich: A Look At A Real Life Experience; Deleted Scenes With Director's Comments; Theatrical Trailer; Production Notes; Cast and Filmmakers Bios; DVD-ROM Features.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Thomas Newman

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/B

Startling realization: Julia Roberts really hasn't appeared in many different genres of film. Okay, maybe this isn't exactly shocking, but when I thought about it, I guess I expected to see more variation in her choices. As it stands, the vast majority consist of romantic comedies (Runaway Bride, Pretty Woman, Notting Hill), with subsets of maudlin weepers (Steel Magnolias, Stepmom) and conspiracy-oriented semi-thrillers (Conspiracy Theory, The Pelican Brief). Sure, a couple of fantasy films have popped into the mix (Hook, Mary Reilly) but those three categories pretty well sum up the Roberts catalog.

Well, if it ain't broke, why fix it, I guess, and since Roberts remains easily the most successful female box office draw today, she must know what she's doing. Her latest blockbuster falls into the third grouping: the legal drama Erin Brockovich.

This is what we like to call a "feel good" movie. EB takes a true story about a twice-divorced mother of three wee ones who has trouble landing a decent job. She loses a lawsuit after she becomes injured in a car accident and guilts her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), into giving her a job. Once there, she becomes intensely involved in a case that pits some sick folks against a mighty power company in little Hinckley California; intrigue ensues.

EB is an extremely manipulative movie in which all of our emotions are handed to us on a platter. However, I actually don't regard this as a terrible thing. Director Steven Soderbergh is quite a talented filmmaker, with gems like sex, lies and videotape and Out of Sight to his credit, but he seems to be in "hired hand" territory with EB. While Soderbergh lends the film his distinctive visual style, it seems much more obvious and "telegraphed" than most of his other work.

The movie offers some surprises, like George (Aaron Eckhart), the biker neighbor who turns into Mr. Mom. Actually, I was pleased to see such an unconventionally-presented leading man. You wouldn't know if from his scruffy appearance here, but Eckhart usually presents a more-standard stud, such as his look from In the Company of Men. I really liked the fact that a movie featured such a non-traditional appearance for its male romantic interest.

Other than George's character, however, EB sticks to tried and true tactics. When I mentioned the manipulative qualities, that largely extends to the manner in which characters are portrayed. We're clearly told who to like and who to dislike, or at least mistrust. A few examples: the first representative of the power company who comes to meet with Ed and Erin, he's a smarmy-looking little weasel who sits slouched down in his waiting-room seat. Also, when we initially meet two other lawyers who will join the case, they're clad in similar bland grey/white suits and shot very rigidly and stiffly, whereas Ed and Erin are dressed in warmer tones and filmed with more fluid motions.

It goes the other way as well, since Soderbergh tends to make the ill plaintiffs in the lawsuit look very sweet and homey; he bathes them in sunlight and natural tones and clearly gives them an easy aura of likability. The role of Erin has some complexity, as she must juggle her neglected home-life with this new-found career, but even that aspect gets the short shrift, as the George side-plot usually feels tacked on and gratuitous; it seems like the filmmakers thought they needed to maintain a side of affairs not strictly limited to legal wranglings, and George's involvement was the result. Actually, I don't doubt that real-life Erin did suffer some significant home complications, but I simply felt that the film makes them seem somewhat phony.

The question of factual accuracy has come up a few times in regard to the movie, and although I poked around the Internet to find more details, I couldn't find many specifics. However, I've heard claimed a few times that the film's basic assertion - that a certain chemical made these people sick, and that the power company knew about this - has been proven incorrect; apparently studies conducted since the conclusion of the real case showed that while hexavalent chromium does cause health problems, it didn't appear involved in any of these illnesses.

Do I find the film's non-disclosure of this information problematic? Yes and no. On one hand, I dislike the fact that EB spreads misinformation, and the negative publicity that was afforded the power company may seem unfair. Basically, if these facts are true - I was unable to corroborate them through my searches - then the case was won due to incorrect data, and the film is built on a house of lies.

However, another issue is at play here that somewhat vindicates the movie's points. As I mentioned, the indications I've heard state that while the case was active, it was clearly believed that the hexavalent chromium caused the illnesses; the data at the time was strong enough to win the thing for the plaintiffs. The issue that cost the power company the big bucks stemmed from the fact they knew of this potential danger but did nothing about it.

That's the part that redeems the apparently-faulty science of Erin Brockovich. The most important issue was not that the power company polluted the water and made people sick; it's that they knew what they were doing could be harmful but did it anyway.

It ultimately doesn't matter that their actions may have caused no damage; they behaved in a willfully malicious and irresponsible manner, and for that reason, it was appropriate that they were punished. I equate it to reckless driving or attempted murder; while neither of those actions create any actual damage, the intent to harm existed. If 50 years from now we find out that cigarettes don't cause lung cancer, are the tobacco companies any less culpable? I don't think so, and while I wish there had been some nod to this apparent-truth in the case of Erin Brockovich, the nobility of her pursuit for justice remains valid; as I understand it, she, Ed and the others acted upon the facts as they - and everyone else involved - understood them, so one cannot cast aspersions on their intentions because they did not intentionally act in a dishonest manner.

Whatever factual problems Erin Brockovich may have, I felt it worked well as a film. Yes, it's ham-fisted and manipulative, but as I alluded earlier, that's not always a terrible thing. Soderbergh pulls it off better than, say, Barry Levinson, who comes across as absurdly condescending and patronizing in his movies. In EB, Soderbergh manages to capture more of a Capra-esque feeling to the piece; while I was always acutely aware that I was being spoon-fed characters and situations, I didn't really care, and I found the piece to ultimately be enjoyable and entertaining. Sometimes it's fun to watch a pleasant and well-made David and Goliath piece, and despite its somewhat pandering tone, Erin Brockovich achieves its goals with style and some charm.

The DVD:

Erin Brockovich appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For the most part, the film looks very good, but the transfer features a few concerns that made the picture less than ideal.

The image seems very crisp and clear throughout the whole movie, as almost every aspect of the film appears sharp and accurate; Soderbergh's style means that the camera goes slightly out of focus at times, but other than those exceptions, EB seemed very well-defined. I noticed some significant moiré effects, however, as the law offices offered lots of shimmering from the omnipresent blinds, plus some of Finney's suits could go a little crazy as well. Jagged edges appeared on occasion, and I witnessed more substantial than usual artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Colors seem generally satisfying and accurate, with no concerns related to bleeding or noise. Soderbergh favors stylized usage of hues and lighting; for example, this creates the "scorched earth" bright and faded appearance of some of the Hinckley locations. Despite this tendency, I found the colors to look nice and rich. Black levels seemed perfectly solid and deep, and shadow detail looked appropriately heavy without any signs of excessive thickness. Frankly, the moiré issues were the biggest problem I saw on the DVD, and they're largely the reason the movie doesn't enter "A" territory. Nonetheless, it earns a very solid "B+".

Also slightly flawed but strong is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Erin Brockovich. The weakest aspect of the mix comes from the limited soundfield. The image sticks very strongly to the front channels, and even there the active seems fairly minor. Virtually all dialogue comes from the center, and the right and left speakers only provide some general ambient effects, although they do also offer excellent separation of the score. The surrounds do little throughout the movie; they feature some light atmosphere but almost nothing specific and are only a minor aspect of the mix. This may be typical of Soderbergh productions, since Out of Sight also featured a tame soundfield.

Although I found the ambition of the track to be disappointing, the quality of the audio makes up for those deficiencies. Put simply, the entire mix sounds terrific, with no flaws of any kind. Dialogue seems very warm and natural, with excellent clarity and intelligibility. Effects are accurate and realistic and display no signs of distortion. Best of all is the music. Thomas Newman's score comes across with excellent depth and precision; the music seems lively and smooth and it really adds to the presentation, especially through some wonderfully deep bass. The high quality of this track redeemed it and brought it up to a "B+".

Erin Brockovich tosses in a pretty nice complement of extras, starting with an extensive collection of deleted scenes. We find 17 segments that total 30 minutes of running time; these can be viewed with or without commentary from Soderbergh. Some of these clips are pretty interesting, as some minor subplots were trimmed, and all remain watchable, even though most of them didn't need to be in the film. Soderbergh's commentary is very helpful, as he includes detail about why the particular scenes were removed and also provides information about the production as a whole. Soderbergh proved himself a good commentator on Out of Sight; hearing him speak during the deleted scenes made me miss a full commentary even more.

Next up is one of Universal's "Spotlight On Location" featurettes; this one runs for 15 minutes. Universal have produced some fantastic documentaries for packages like Apollo 13 and Field of Dreams, but these are not in the same vein as the much more promotionally-oriented "SOL" pieces, which are usually pretty short and puffy. Happily, "SOL: Erin Brockovich" provides a pleasant surprise, mainly because it doesn't focus on happy-talk interviews with the principals. Yes, it does toss in some of those sound bites, but it mainly offers lots of interesting comments from real Erin and real Ed; they tell us a lot about the true facts of the story and make this program much more compelling than I expected.

A similar piece is called simply "Erin Brockovich". It shows four minutes of additional interview snippets with real Erin, and frankly, it seems a little redundant after the more-interesting "SOL" program. Erin adds a few details that we didn't hear in that featurette, but it's nothing special.

We also find a few DVD stand-bys in this package. Some very good text production notes make the cut, and the "Cast and Filmmakers" section includes solid biographies for the three main actors, and Soderbergh (writer Susannah Grant is listed but no bio appears). Of course, the disc contains the theatrical trailer for EB plus ads for Out of Sight and Notting Hill in the "Recommendations" area. Those two trailers also can be found in the respective talent files for Roberts and Soderbergh. "Coming Soon" also offers a brief preview of the upcoming Jurassic Park and Lost World DVDs.

Finally, the disc includes some DVD-ROM features. According to the text page, "the DVD-ROM materials may include additional information about the movie, sound clips from the film, behind-the-scenes interviews and other information". Since I don't own a DVD-ROM drive, I can't relate what actually makes the cut, unfortunately, but at least this lets you know the materials exist.

In many ways, Erin Brockovich is a movie I should dislike, as it's exceedingly manipulative and without much subtlety. However, despite its various flaws, the film presents a compelling and frequently exciting piece of "underdog" drama that has managed to hold up nicely through two screenings. The DVD presents slightly flawed but generally strong picture and sound plus a few positive extras. Erin Brockovich definitely merits at least a rental, and a purchase wouldn't be out of the question.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top