Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

With Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts gave the legwork of activism a brassy makeover

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich
Screenshot: Erin Brockovich

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The recent release of Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7—along with the ongoing protests in the streets of American cities—has us thinking back on other movies about activism.

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Erin Brockovich (2000)

The very last shot of Erin Brockovich sees its title character walk up to somebody’s front door and knock; before anyone within can answer, the screen cuts to black and the end credits roll. A savvy move, that. Technically, the film is a legal drama (crossed with a biopic), but concluding on that particular note underlines the importance of Brockovich’s exhausting, tenacious legwork—the extent to which she triumphs simply because she’s prepared to keep showing up at ordinary people’s homes and listen to their problems. Otherwise, viewers might merely chalk everything up to her brassy attitude, flaunt-it wardrobe (halter tops, leather miniskirts), and epic cleavage. “What makes you think you can just walk in there and find what we need?” asks her boss, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), of a regional water board office—to which Brockovich casually replies, “They’re called boobs, Ed.” Ultimately, though, this is a story of sheer grunt work, deploying sartorial eccentricity and fiery speeches to make activism much more audience-friendly.

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Okay, maybe its lead actor deserves some credit, too. Ten years after Pretty Woman made her an instant superstar, Julia Roberts won the Academy Award for this performance, making a full-course meal of screenwriter Susannah Grant’s acid-tongued dialogue. (When someone suggests that a meeting has gotten off on the wrong foot, Brockovich snarls, “That’s all you got, lady: two wrong feet in fucking ugly shoes.”) The role itself is admittedly primo Oscar bait, inviting us to cheer on a single mother of three who talks herself into a job at Masry’s small law firm (after he loses her auto-accident case), gets handed a seemingly innocuous pro bono assignment involving real-estate purchases, and winds up uncovering corporate malfeasance so flagrant and pervasive that the real-life victims were awarded what were then the largest direct-action damages ($333 million) in U.S. history. The details of this case could easily have been soporific; one can only hear the words “hexavalent chromium” so many times before nodding off. But director Steven Soderbergh (who was Oscar-nominated for this film, but lost to himself, by way of proving that he could in fact direct Traffic) keeps the tone engagingly fun and flippant, letting Roberts’ megawatt charisma do most of the heavy lifting. A spoonful of sassiness helps the medicine go down.

Even the movie’s weaker aspects have their upside. Scenes in which the work-obsessed hero gets upbraided for neglecting a romantic partner and/or children are invariably tiresome, and that’s no less true of Erin Brockovich. At the same time, though, it’s refreshing for once to see a man—Aaron Eckhart, as biker boyfriend and next-door neighbor George—stuck in the unrewarding role of whiny caregiver, while the woman insists upon the temporarily greater importance of what’s she doing. (Roberts also gets a single-shot tour de force in which Brockovich smiles through tears while hearing via phone about her infant daughter’s first word, which she missed.) Similarly, while it’s hard to believe that the real Brockovich had memorized the addresses, phone numbers, family trees, and complete medical histories of over 600 class-action plaintiffs, and could recite that information on demand for any one of them chosen at random, it’s still hugely satisfying to watch her do so. For all of the movie’s garish, breezy surface pleasures, there’s an undercurrent of genuine anger at what corporate America is willing to consider business as usual—a subject to which Soderbergh has repeatedly returned (albeit with some results being significantly better than others). The solution, Erin Brockovich insists, without being strident about it, is serious shoe leather.

Availability: Erin Brockovich is currently streaming on Sling TV, and is also available for digital rental and/or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, AMC On Demand, and VUDU.

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