What is it about a picture of Julia Roberts with a baby on her hip that seems so irresistible? This would be, of course, one of the images that’s become so instantly familiar through its heavy use to promote her new movie, Erin Brockovich. Consider, just for a minute, the implications of such a campaign, what it suggests about the U.S. culture’s changing attitudes toward single working class moms, or more likely, what it suggests about unchanging attitudes toward fave-fantasy girl Julia Roberts.
In the film, Roberts plays the titular, true-story-based Erin, single mother of three precious children (the 8- and 6-year-olds played by Scotty Leavenworth and Gemmenne De la Pena), barely scraping by at something like subsistence level (unpaid bills are primary features in the film’s set design). Some ten minutes pass before she starts living with her smalltown California neighbor, an extremely pleasant Harley Davidson biker named George (Aaron Eckhart). He has a rather cavalier outlook on work, preferring to do so just long enough to make the cash necessary to live comfortably for a while. Soon, he’s staying home with the kids while Erin is working at her new job, Xeroxing and filing for a local attorney, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). As she angrily proclaims at one point, Erin has “no brains or legal expertise,” but rather, as the movie makes clear in repeated scenes where she butts up against someone’s prejudice, a rural version of street-smarts and a lot of nerve, not to mention Julia Roberts’ extraordinary smile and body. The movie spends a lot of time looking at and asking you to look at this body, as she wears tight, short-skirted, cleavage-enhancing costumes that are supposed to indicate her bold, crass, low-class taste (Masry chastises her that her outfits make “the girls” in the office “uncomfortable”), but end up making most all the men who share scenes with her look silly and/or lascivious.
Then again, maybe these are the same effects after all. For Erin Brockovich does have a certain class consciousness and politics, however rudimentary and filtered through gender politics. Erin has to earn her right to pursue a civil case involving some 600 locals (whose chief spokespeople, at least in relation to Erin, are women) afflicted by toxins (the gene-damaging Chromium 6) knowingly loosed on the environment by the Evil Billion Dollar Utility Company, Pacific Gas & Electric. And pursue it she does, pulling together evidence from badly concealed records, gathering signatures from diseased and distrustful victims, and all the while sassing her boss and any other fellow who sees fit to give her a hard time for being a “bimbo.”
Screenwriter Susannah Grant (Pocahontas and Ever After) clearly has an affinity for stories about strong women, no matter how convoluted the route to anyone else recognizing much less appreciating this strength. Like Grant’s previous scripts, Erin Brockovich (which underwent reported but uncredited touch-ups by Richard [Bridges of Madison County] LaGravenese) appears to respect its spunky protagonist but does not omit how unnerving and imperfect she can be. This imperfection is registered in predictable ways: Erin is occasionally overzealous about her job; in particular, she misses the baby’s first word but is duly punished when George tells her about it over the cellphone and she cries alone in her car on the way home from a long day “getting signatures.” She can also be thoughtless, as when, angry at George, she calls him out for not having a job; he responds by losing his until-then incessant patience. She can also be sloppy, silly, cute, annoying, all shaping Erin as the Hollywood incarnation of the Admirable Underclass. She’s never so dreadful or “other” that middle-class audience members wouldn’t recognize themselves in her. Remember Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny, how ridiculously unresilient she looked in her waitress uniform? Erin is no more believable, despite the fact that she allows for what is, probably, Julia Roberts’ most nuanced performance as Julia Roberts (she always plays Julia Roberts, which is fine, that’s what she’s paid for). The problem with all this difficult-Erinness is that it tends to be framed as Drama or Comedy, all important, all the time (and at nearly 2 and a half hours, there’s a lot of time). The film, which is, in its way, efficient, never really has downtime. Every scene tells you something special about the irascible, adorable, always fabulous Erin.
Meanwhile, the secondary characters all serve as props for developing Erin. Even that great scene-chewer Finney has to get out of her way, playing fatigued straight man to her quips about boobs and awkward obstacle to her teary protests or moralistic speeches. George is the unusual male character, certainly, in that the initially happy couple share her bed, then he watches as she acts out her former beauty queen activities and even dons her tiara for a little androgyny humor. He’s such a nice guy, and so visibly “better” with her kids than she is (at least in the scenes that the film chooses to show, which privilege his smoothing over and her rushing and worrying, that you might be tempted to wonder what the movie poster would look like if Aaron Eckhart were holding that baby on his hip.
The line up of damaged women include a tearful Donna (Marg Helgenberger, looking slightly less guilty than she did as Patsy Ramsey in CBS’s execrable Perfect Murder, Perfect Town), Mandy (Meredith Zinner), and Laura (Mimi Kennedy). They rally round Erin pretty much on cue, with the expected hold-outs to keep some tension in the repetitive business of gathering signatures. The other-than-Ed-and-George speaking males in the film are PG&E employee Charles Embry (Tracey Walter), creepy in his mousiness, if not exactly threatening (which is, after all, what Tracey Walter Repo Man‘s “plate of shrimp” mystic does best), and Kurt Potter (Peter Coyote), the arrogant corporate lawyer whom Masry brings in late in the deal, afraid that he and Erin don’t have what it takes to go head to head with the expensively-suited PG&E legal staff.
Potter and Theresa Dallavale (Veanne Cox), his snooty lady lawyer associate (Erin’s opposite in every possible way) provide the film’s most visibly embodied resistance to Erin, and as such, they represent an interesting tack. Because this case never actually went to court, but settled for some $333 million for the plaintiffs, the film doesn’t go the way of John Travolta’s bloated and deeply shadowed courtroom drama, A Civil Action. Instead, Erin Brockovich stays focused on its supposed class antagonism, no matter which side the lawyers seem to be on. The only time any of the lawyers get too upscale for the clients to comprehend them, is when Potter takes over the case, temporarily alienates the “people,” and Erin has to regain their trust by visiting each and every one of them (this leads to more repetition of the “Erin driving to see folks” images). The PG&E lawyers barely register, only showing up to huff and puff as they’re outsmarted by this podunk firm and particularly by Erin’s crude wit repeatedly. This class-gender distinction is the movie’s most self-righteous point, but it’s too unsubtle too be convincing: Erin is Julia Roberts, she can’t help it. Unfortunately, the film also sets up what seems to be a rather unthinking class-race axis of distinction, between Erin and the black and Latina women who work in Ed’s office with her: they clearly think she’s full of herself (and her boobs) and the movie uses their disapproval as a kind of low-key comedy, generally at their expense, since Erin is so, you know, fabulous.
Everyone knows that everyone loves Julia Roberts, so this movie’s veneration hardly seems unusual or unexpected. What might be surprising is that it’s so noticeable in a film directed by Steven Soderbergh, best known for his provocative, offbeat independent work, like sex lies and videotape, Kafka, and The Limey; even Out of Sight, his biggest moneymaker to date, had a somewhat nonlinear structure. This Universal Studios Production is orthodox in just about every way, from its pretty movie star to its heartwarming storyline, and Soderbergh’s handling of it is appropriately straight-ahead (despite its apparent theme song, Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day is a Winding Road”). But no matter how routine the film’s rehearsals of Hollywood conventions may be, the bottom line is Julia Roberts. Just look at this $20 million girl, on the covers of Vanity Fair and Redbook (how brilliant is her agent, getting these quality, high exposure mags, not even so pedestrian as Madonna on Good Housekeeping?). Julia Roberts with and without baby-on-her-hip can do no wrong this month.