An unemployed single mother blackmails her lawyer into giving her a job as a legal clerk, but goes on to discover a corporate cover-up that would become one of the biggest legal cases in US history. Based on a true story.
Your typical Julia Roberts vehicle tends to do what it says on the tin: big budget romcom shenanigans with that smile, and those legs. Cue: box office jamboree. Open up Erin Brockovich, though, and inside is something radically new: a superlative character piece where you actually stop thinking that Julia Roberts is, well, Julia Roberts, and immerse yourself in the travails and triumphs of trashy single mum Erin Brockovich and her legal crusade. A performance, in fact, that earned the Pretty Woman an Oscar.
Brockovich is presented initially as a terminally unlucky but doggedly determined individual wrestling with trying to bring up her kids, stymie her mounting debts by finding an elusive job and generally come to terms with the fact that her life, thus far, has come to nothing. What she has in droves is empathy for fellow victims and the steely determination to scale mountains. Usually with suits on.
Her great cause - and the movie's plot - lies in her discovery that a huge corporation's negligent pollution of a small town has resulted in a horrendous array of cancers and illness amongst the locals. Having wormed her way into a smalltime law firm as a skivvie, by sheer force of will she then cajoles her long-suffering boss Ed Masry (Finney) to take up the case and let her do her stuff -you know, win over the folks, take on the dastardly big time lawyer types with her roughshod-but-real ways while neglecting her family and top new boyfriend (Eckhart), as she discovers someone she really likes. Herself.
Okay, so it makes no bones about going for the obvious (and you can virtually tick off the dramatic highpoints) - its basis in truth notwithstanding, the movie is certainly predictable. But it does it so well, a less showy than usual Soderbergh delivering a movie that is both intensely funny and emotionally satisfying. It may lack the gravitas of The Insider, whose themes of ordinary folk striving against corporate pressure it closely mirrors, but it still makes the same passionate points about the evils inherent in big business America and how an individual can still affect the system.
Brockovich is brought to life with a hitherto unseen range by Roberts, enlivening the nascent grit with a splendidly foul-mouthed wit as she delivers the film's nicely timed comic relief. Lost is the gorgeous movie star and born is a real person: vulnerable, caring, balls of brass. Finney, alongside her, gives one of those rich character turns that remind why you always loved him: a mix of exasperation, tenderness and emerging belief etched into his creased looks as he deals with this force of nature he somehow employs.
Now miles from his arty-outcast persona, Soderbergh is fast emerging as one of Hollywood's finest directors, investing big time names and big budget movies with something like real intelligence. The notion of a "Julia Roberts Movie" will never be the same again.