Think you've seen some hard times? Just be glad you weren't Erin Brockovich back in 1992. Twice divorced, with three children in tow and barely getting by on welfare, a freak car accident left her stuck with thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills. Only sheer desperation (and a glimmer of hope) would land her in the offices of mid-level lawyer Edward L. Masry, but her crass demeanor and "white trash fashion sense" would cause Masry to lose her case, and any chances for financial compensation. Penniless, jobless, and with no formal education, Brockovich's fate seemed bleak indeed.
But as the old saying goes, when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. Despite having zero legal experience, Brockovich begged Masry into hiring her on as a research assistant. It would prove to be a prophetic pairing. Erin's innate sense of fairness (and eagle-eye for details) would lead her to discover a cover-up attempt by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), after the company had dumped toxic chemicals into the water supply of the small town of Hinkley, California. Working tirelessly with Masry, Brockovich would go on to win the largest direct-action lawsuit in American history, ultimately exposing PG&E's criminal activities to the tune of a nearly $400 million in civil penalties.
The story of Erin Brockovich is the kind of inspirational underdog tale Hollywood adores. It almost seemed pre-ordained that her triumph would be made into a movie -- the journey of a common hero who, in the worst of circumstances, manages to accomplish something extraordinary. But while such films often fall prey to a series of narrative land mines that can result in mawkish (and often exploitive) results, 'Erin Brockovich' prevails.
Credit the film's producers and studio for having the smarts to hire Steven Soderbergh to direct, bringing a fresh, invigorating realism to a genre that usually only panders to sentimentality. Working together with screenwriter Susannah Grant and star Julia Roberts, Soderbergh had the insight to grasp that the huge populist appeal of a modern heroine like Erin Brockovich is not to be taken at face value. Hers was not yet another tale of an "outsider" who conformed to the system to win, but rather of someone who, through sheer force of will, demanded the system to conform to her rules -- and managed to achieve justice in the process.
Of course, the ultimate success of a movie like 'Erin Brockovich' rests most squarely on the shoulders of its star. Julia Roberts proves herself more than game, turning in the best performance of her career, and so memorably taking home an Oscar for her efforts. It would have been only too easy for Roberts and Soderbergh to have turned their fictionalized Erin into a saint, or a martyr, or simply a soccer mom short on cash. Instead, from the first frame, they never allow the conventions of the genre to interfere with their character study -- as portrayed in the movie, Brockovich is flawed, uncompromising, and often infuriating and her story is richer for it.
Before 'Brockovich,' I have to admit to not being as enamored with Roberts as some -- in her previous roles, I often felt she was just playing up her natural charms without truly inhabiting her characters. But here, she tears into Brockovich with such gusto (so fearlessly trusting Soderbergh), that at last she allows herself to show true vulnerability onscreen. Make no mistake -- that big, flashy, toothy Roberts star wattage is still on display, but she also allows her Brockovich to be unapologetically vain, petulant, abrasive and crass to great effect. It's a truly raw performance, and one for which she deserves all the accolades she received.
But more than just a mere star vehicle, 'Erin Brockovich' invests our emotions in the outcome of those the real Brockovich fought so hard to serve. Soderbergh and Grant paint a background for the story that respects the natural rhythms and cadence of blue collar life, without condescension. Unlike so many didactic (albeit well-meaning) Hollywood biopics, these "ordinary" characters are not simpletons, buffoons or (most egregious of all) lame victims to be pitied. Unlike the way PG&E dismissed Brockovich, no one here is as an object to be patronized.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, the real reason 'Erin Brockovich' feels more like a celebration than a film is simply because, for once in life, truth prevailed. Though I don't believe that big business is inherently corrupt and deserving of across-the-board condemnation, it's also probably true that there is no one among us who has not, at one time or another, wanted to "stick it to the man." We (both as individuals and as a nation) know what it's like to be lied to, betrayed and cheated by the very institutions that are supposed to protect and serve us. But every once in a while, a crusader comes along that sees this injustice, fights it, and wins. The real-life story of Erin Brockovich is one such triumph, and as portrayed in 'Erin Brockovich' the movie, it is an achievement that's impossible not to cheer.
Given Steven Soderbergh's penchant for overt stylization ('Traffic,' the 'Ocean's Eleven' series being prime examples), you might expect 'Erin Brockovich' on HD DVD to be all excessive grain, whacked-out colors and a lack of sharpness. Instead, this is one very spiffy 1080p/VC-1 encode -- in fact, I would go as to far as to say this is one of the better catalog efforts I've seen out of Universal in months.
Though not has severe as 'Traffic,' 'Erin Brockovich' does bear quite a few of the usual Soderbergh stylistic trademarks. The man is certainly a fan of unusual color filters, with interesting uses of tweaked tints, from hazy afternoon skies that look like orange acid rain, to midnight blues so intense that it looks like the moon is a giant fluorescent light bulb. Yet this transfer is rock solid, with hues largely free of noise, smearing or oversaturation. Even fleshtones hold firm, and are almost always the proper shade of orange.
Detail, too, holds up surprisingly well, with a very pleasing sense of depth throughout, and fine textures (such as skin, clothing, locations, etc.) clearly visible. Shadow delineation is also impressive, with a very slight bit of detail lost due to the high-contrast lighting, but otherwise even the darkest areas of the picture are clear and distinct.
Granted, all here is not perfect. Soderbergh's use of different film stocks can lead to some print inconsistencies -- though generally clean, grain flairs up on occasion. There are also a few random shots that are quite dirty, which is odd for such a relatively new release. Most disappointing is Universal's continued persistence in over-enhancing many of its HD titles, leading to occasionally distracting edge halos and jaggies. But given how strong the presentation looks otherwise, none of these issues are truly devastating. More than ever before, 'Erin Brockovich' shines on HD DVD.
Universal presents 'Erin Brockovich' in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (1.5 Mbps English and 768 kbps French dubs are provided). At first I was disappointed that the studio didn't bump up the audio to Dolby TrueHD, but after watching the dialogue-driven film again, I've come to think that a TrueHD track likely wouldn't have made much of a difference in this case.
Simply put, there is just about nothing going on in the surrounds -- discrete effects are extremely rare. Even the typically sprightly Thomas Newman score is confined to the fronts. Considering the narrow sound design, the Dolby Digital-Plus track handles the material easily. Dialogue is always front and center, and crystal clear. The rest of the sonic palette is also nicely rendered, with a warm, pleasing tone. No, there is no whomping low bass to challenge the subwoofer, nor any other aural bells and whistles. But this is the rare high-def disc release where we care about the words characters say, and not just the things they blow up -- on that level, this soundtrack is as good as it needs to be.
For a movie that was so well-received critically and commercially, 'Erin Brockovich' was surprisingly thin on supplements in its DVD release. That situation hasn't changed in the film's high-def debut, with Universal repackaging the same extras package -- once again in blah 480p/i/MPEG-2 video.
On the plus side, 'Erin Brockovich' contains perhaps the best collection of Deleted Scenes I've seen for a movie. Totaling nearly 30 minutes, I don't think a single scene here isn't as good (or better, in some cases) as what's included in the finished film. Thankfully, Steven Soderbergh provides commentary on why this material was excised, which runs the gamut from the narrative suffering from too many subplots to simply keeping the film's running time at a manageable length. Regardless, these scenes are definitely worth the time investment, and are good enough that someday it might be interesting to see Soderbergh create a new, longer cut reinstating all of the cut material.
Next are two featurettes. "Spotlight on Location" (15 minutes) is fairly typical, with cast and crew (including Soderbergh and Julia Roberts) offering plot recap, but the chance to see the real Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry (Albert Finney's character) make this one worth watching. Likewise, the 4-minute "The Real Erin Brockovich" is just more of her interview.
Rounding things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which (like the rest of the extras) is presented in 480p/MPEG-2 video only.
'Erin Brockovich' is a truly rare breed in today's Hollywood, a film that succeeds on every level -- commercially, critically and artistically. It's an inspiring underdog story, a riveting biopic and a sublime critique on corporate crookedness -- plus it's topped off with an Academy Award-winning performance by Julia Roberts. What's not to love?
This HD DVD is also quite likable. It looks great, sounds about as good as it could and has an enjoyable (albeit slim) supplements package. All things considered, this is the kind of solid catalog release that the studios should be putting out on high-def on a regular basis -- chalk up another win for 'Erin Brockovich.'