It's been said many times before that "fact is stranger than fiction." If that saying weren't true or believed by many, it occasionally would be hard to accept certain movies based on true-life events. After all, the stories are often so incredible that they seem more like the efforts of a creative screenwriter rather than something that possibly could have transpired in the real world. In addition, if not for the "based on a true story" onscreen notices usually given at the beginning of such films - notwithstanding the "white lie" at the beginning of "Fargo" - one would automatically assume such offerings were nothing but fiction.
Yet, the true-life stories obviously do take place and because of their often incredulous or far-fetched plots, they do make for some fascinating films. While many head into the "made for TV" realm, the better ones often appear on the big screen. While those responsible should be commended for their efforts of bringing such stories to the public's attention, the one thing such film folks obviously hate is when someone beats them to the punch with a similar tale.
Such is the case with this week's release of "Erin Brockovich." The story of a small law firm that risks everything in battling a corporate behemoth for their previous wrongdoings - in this case, purposefully but illegally dumping toxins that affected many in a small town - the picture is impressively mounted, ably mixes comedy and drama, and features a standout performance from Julia Roberts.
It's also incredibly similar to the John Travolta flick, "A Civil Action," that was playing in theaters just one year ago. While it's certainly not unusual for Hollywood to deliver various pictures with similar themes or plots within a short period of time from one another, the fact that the Travolta and company film beat this one out of the starting gate most likely isn't what the filmmakers here desired and is apt to elicit comparisons between the two.
As such, we might as well get that out of the way before proceeding. Yes, despite the fact that both films are based on true, but separate events (making one wonder how many times our ground water has been poisoned by thoughtless/careless corporations), the similarities between the two are striking.
Both feature strong-willed, law firm employees who risk most everything in their lives to fight for the rights of the "little people" who've been wronged and injured. They're battling a corporate giant who's poisoned the ground water and caused all sorts of diseases and maladies, and must face a variety of obstacles, self-doubts and the efforts of the giant's legal team to thwart their efforts.
There are differences, however, in certain aspects of the stories and the way in which they're told that make both films worthy in their own rights. Here, Julia Roberts' character isn't a slick lawyer. Instead, she's what some would call a white trash floozy (based on her demeanor, sailor talk and dress). As such, the character, and subsequently the film have a more human and accessible feel as both focus a bit more on the people than did "Action" that put more emphasis on the actual litigation.
That said, the one thing this film is lacking is a strong or at least consistent physical embodiment of the "enemy." In that other film, Robert Duvall gave an outstanding, if understated performance representing the villains. Here, the aura-like presence of the "evil" corporation is present for much of the film, but the lack of a "front man" for it clearly diminishes the battle.
Some of the film's best scenes, however, are the ones where the protagonists confront the barely seen antagonists. Although not plentiful in number, they are effectively written by screenwriter Susannah Grant ("Ever After," Disney's "Pocahontas") and director Steven Soderbergh ("Out of Sight," "The Limey"). They're certainly of the crowd-pleasing variety, especially those where Roberts' character berates the opposition for their callousness.
In fact, it's Roberts who propels the film and easily lifts it above the "been there, seen that before" feeling that unfortunately surrounds it to some degree. While it recently seemed that Roberts had possibly abandoned her efforts in the drama genre (replacing the relatively recent box office failure of films such as "Mary Reilly" and "Michael Collins" with the smashing success of 1999's "Notting Hill" and "Runaway Bride"), this queen of the romantic comedy proves that she has what it takes - and then some - to pull off this sort of role.
Nearly as good is four-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney ("Tom Jones," "Under the Volcano") as her cautious, but determined and wily boss, and he and Roberts play quite well off one another. Aaron Eckhart ("Your Friends and Neighbors," "In the Company of Men"), continuing with his chameleon-like run of playing indistinguishable characters, is also good as Erin's biker boyfriend and does as much as possible in the limited time and with a less than completely developed role.
Other supporting performances are generally okay, with a decent enough portrayal of the victims that gives that side of the story the proper human touch, something that "A Civil Action" didn't quite take the time to portray as well.
Playing off the time-tested David & Goliath plot and featuring a tremendous performance from Roberts in an outstanding dramatic turn (and what may be the best of her career), the film may suffer a bit from comparisons to and proximity with "Action," as well as the lack of a physically personified antagonist. Even so, it's clearly an engaging, entertaining and definitely crowd-pleasing film. We give "Erin Brockovich" a 7.5 out of 10.