Monday, 8 April 2013

Scene on a Sunday Monday: Erin Brockovich

Apparently blogger conspired against me in auto-posting this last evening, so a few hours later makes this a scene on a Monday. Alas. On with the scene.

I think I’ve said it ad nauseum in a few different articles, but I’ll repeat it again. In an oeuvre made up of eclectic films of varying genres I feel confident in confessing that Erin Brockovich is my favourite Steven Soderbergh. My love for the film, and its central performance, is not even compromised by the sometimes poor reputation which precedes it. For one, there’s the issue of 2000 being the year of two Soderbergh films and the more ostensibly “important” Traffic seems to be more indicative of a great film. Then, there’s the issue of its star – Julia Roberts; a good actress who has bizarrely endured as a little appreciated a little over a decade after her heyday.

Erin Brockovich’s goodness comprises (but is not confined) to its incessant rewatchability. Who’d have thought a film about the mounting of a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company would be so intriguing without being a fussy legal drama? Grant’s screenplay and Soderbergh’s direction ensure that the legal half and the personal half of Erin’s life are both permeating with significance and importance so that we don’t feel resentful when either takes the spotlight. And there a number of fine scenes to use as an example of how well this works. This scene works best when given context and not my ideal choice for a Scene on a Sunday, piece. And yet, I’m very partial to it.

Set-Up: Worried that with two new litigators on the PG&E case that she will be edged out of the case Erin shows up to work, while sick with the flu, realising her assumptions may have been accurate when she interrupts a meeting she did not know of.

I’ll admit, I’m sensitive about Julia Roberts criticism to some extent because she’s one of the actors I strongly liked even before I became an obsessive cinephile. The way she, and this performance, manages to be so systematically disregarded as fluff is particularly frustrating considering how well she understands – not just the heroic, glamorous Erin but the downtrodden and abrasive Erin, too.

I love how she enters there, so normal so plain and it’s unlike usual – sometimes outrageously – dressed up Erin.

          ROSALIND: “Hey, Erin, I thought you were taking a sick day.”

(An aside, what is with Soderbergh films and their gloriously sunny photography? Masry’s office with the wood décor is charming and professional and the sun through the window is so nice to watch. Also, it makes Julia seems to emerge from a burst of light. A probably incidental touch, but an effective one nonetheless – Erin is something of a perverse take on a helpful angel.)

          ERIN: “So did I.”

And I love the way she slowly realises that something is amiss. Even though there is a traditional romance within the film (Aaron Eckhart is the half dozen forgotten roles he’s done where he’s been great opposite fine women but gone without laurels) the relationship between Ed and Erin holds as much emotional significance. So this, the moment is set up like a scene where a spouse finds the other cheating.
           ERIN (cont’d): “What’s going on in there?”

          ROSALIND: “Meeting about the PG&E thing.”

          ERIN: “PG& -- Are you sure?”
           ROSALIND: “Yup.”
And, that look her face – woman on a mission; which is, incidentally, the entire thrust of the film

And, then the moment where they see each other across the room – he’s caught. Finney’s look of shock is palpable and so well played. And again suggests the parallel of this functioning as a romantic scene of being caught cheating would.

The way those four shots tell us so much about how Erin is feeling here is testament to much of the film’s effectiveness. Most easily, it’s about Julia’s ability to telegraph so much of Erin’s story in those few seconds. She’s aghast, she’s defiant and then she is resigned. The chip on Erin’s shoulder is that with her achingly working class background and without the educational history of those around her abrasiveness becomes more conspicuous as she feels the need to act out. But here, seemingly betrayed by her boss – her friend – there’s already the sense that Erin feels defeated. The way Soderbergh stays on her face and shoulders and cuts so to her slumped self to Ed’s guilty glance. It’s a significant moment.
          POTTER (OS): “We can find it or we don’t have a big win.”
         ED: “Could I -- just take a brief break here for a moment? I'll be right back.”
Potter is confused. What can be more important than his debriefing?
          ERIN (indistinct): “If you tell me to relax, I'm gonna choke you with that fucking tie...”
I’m appreciative of how Soderbergh decides to not immediately thrust us into the argument. Erin’s words are instead indistinct.

And, hey, Veanne Cox looking all professional and moody.You will always be Cinderella's stepsister to me.

Go below the jump for great Julia Roberts and Albert Finney moments....  

           ED: Look, you said you weren't feeling great. I thought you should rest.

          ERIN: You know what? that is bullshit. If I was on my death bed, if it’d help you you’d drag me out of it.

This is another shot I like. This moment might seem small out of context, but it’s a big one for Erin and her insecurities. Her body language keeps saying it for her – “Am I good enough? Will I ever be?” That’s why the quick close-up cut to her works so well below.
          ERIN: How could you take this away from me?

          ED (OS): “No one's taking anything, will you let me — ” 


          ERIN: “Bullshit. You stuck me in Siberia dictating to some goddamn steno clerk so you could finish this thing without me.”

This scene is also a lesson in “Julia Roberts will make a lot of ugly faces when she’s angry” and it’s such a fun fact. For better or for worse, one of the best things about Julia Roberts is her inherent lack of vanity in performances. She’s willing to be silly and goofy and I don’t mean to make it sound noble, but there’s never any attempt to incessantly romanticise Erin or to make her palatable without need.


          ED: “They screwed up, Erin! Do I have your attention now? They screwed up and they admit it. The arbitration proposal they sent might have been written in Sanskrit for all the sense it made to the people in Hinkley.”

On that note, it’s always wise to remember how even amidst this Julia show Albert Finney (like Eckhart) turns in a fine supporting turn. In the world of older male actors Finney is one of the warmest, and that quality is essential for Ed. 

          ERIN: “I know. I spoke to Ted. Pamela wouldn't even get on the phone.”
         ED: “Pamela's got everybody seeing red with that letter she wrote to the press. She called us thieves. They’re all listening to it. The whole thing is about to all fall apart Erin.”
          ERIN: “Why? Why?!”
          ED: “Because before we even go to arbitration - we have to get the plaintiffs to agree...”

          ERIN: “How many?”


          ED: “Usually you can only manage to get about 70 percent. PG&E is demanding we get ninety. In other words, everybody. Now you understand? This is serious.”
           ERIN: “And, what Ed, I'm not serious?”

          ED: “You're emotional. You're erratic. You say any goddamn thing that comes into your head. You make this personal, and it isn't –” 


          ERIN: “Not personal? That is my work in there. My sweat, my time away from my kids... If that's not personal, I don't know what is.”
It’s about as much as we can hope for in the way of character defining moments, since this is Erin’s entire purpose. Yes, there less gallant things about the job which she likes – it makes her feel necessary, part of something important. But, principally, it’s something she cares for – that’s why she’s investing her time.

 And then she begins to COUGH and CRUMBLE, but fights it.
This is not a period film, so coughing is not an indication of imminent death by consumption but it’s a key moment nonetheless. Erin is not superhuman and her body is breaking down from overwork. It pokes holes in the infallibility she seemed to display and of course it comes at one the moments she’s weakest emotionally. She’s getting hit on the physical end as well as the professional one.

          ED: “Come on. Come on. Go home. Get well. Because you're no good to me sick. I need you. All right? This case needs you.”
And it’s important throughout this the warm cadence of Finney ensures that Ed never seems villainous.

That shot there of Erin perilously close to extreme sickness horrifies (paging Contagion) because her frailty unnerves. And it leads to her most vulnerable moment of the scene.

A Beat. Then Erin asks him, referring to Potter and Theresa:

           ERIN: “Did you tell them that?”

Clearly, Ed has not.


Erin smiles, shakes her head as she leaves.

And, it’s important, I think, that we end with Ed in the room of books. The crux of the scene happening there is important. It’s the one thing which separates Erin from those in the office. She has not been successful over the past year because of books – it is not her strength. She is without the credentials. And, ultimately, all her professional anxieties lie there. How much, she must wonder, can she trust Ed to need her help or to defend her when she has no credentials to support her? It’s the chip she carries on her shoulder as she leaves.

Where do you stand on Erin Brockovich? Top tier Soderbergh? Top tier Roberts? Fine mix of biopic and riveting drama or merely passable?


Alex Withrow said...

Excellent write-up here. I didn't know Brockovich was your favorite Soderbergh. He's one of my favorite all time directors, so I love finding fans of his work. And I agree, this movie is definitely rewatchable.

Love that scene, by the way. One of my absolute favorites from the film.

Lindsay said...

Great post!

Now I really want to watch Erin Brockovich again, I haven't seen it in forever.